We live in an age where relationships are often initiated and ended via text or a swipe and where we all know at least one person who refuses to answer a call but is constantly posting on social media. We communicate via emojis and 140 characters, but can we really connect in such short interactions? Campfire, a relatively new organization in St. Louis, aims to reconnect people through in-person experiences and community building on a personal basis. 

Campfire brings storytelling back to the intimate, immediate, and immersive performance it once was. Through workshops, regular people are supported and encouraged to find their unique stories. At monthly storytelling events, a single speaker is given the platform to bring their story to life in ways that engender a genuine response from the audience. That response is typically active, rather than passive, and given on a strictly voluntary basis. 

Though the event is open to the public, the stories told during the monthly sessions are meant to stay at the Campfire, creating a sense of inclusion and safety. So, you won't be getting a summary of Kim Kreitner-Riegerix's storytelling debut in this article (although you can get a feel for the event through the Campfire At Home podcast). But I do want to tell you about the nature of the experience; about Kreitner-Riegerix's warm and generous approach and the themes she touched upon; and about the important sense of empathy and engagement that attending Campfire can inspire. Because those elements in this format are what make the experience memorable and exciting to anyone that enjoys a good story. 

Using humor and personal revelation, Kreitner-Riegerix guides the audience through her story of personal identity, perception, and her love of roller coasters. Interrupting her story to periodically invite the audience in, we are asked to say hello to the strangers around us and later to share a way in which we feel misperceived by others. There is an opportunity for audience members who want to express themselves to the group, but the majority of the interactions are self-directed, intended to spark thought and reflection. Though the focus is clearly on the story, this interaction feels a natural part of the telling. 

As Kreitner-Riegerix continues, her light touch and self-deprecating but positive voice shines through her adventures. She conveys her story by touching upon common insecurities and fears in a relatable, personable way. You may not have had her specific experience, but her tone and style let's you know that it's more than ok to fill in your own blanks and to laugh along. The entire evening implies acceptance and acknowledgement that we're all human, teeming with various strengths and insecurities, and doing our best to find happiness. Though not explicitly stated, finding and embracing your true nature are important themes that hit home.

Storytelling is essential human behavior, enabling us to share common, practical knowledge while encouraging imagination and the ability to comprehend the abstract. What makes Campfire stand out as a storytelling event is the communal and interactive nature of its structure and format. The evening is intentionally engaging, as you enter the performance space you are asked to create a name tag that includes the answer to a simple question pertinent to the storyteller's theme. The stories presented at Campfire can be quite personal, but we're introduced to the topic through seemingly innocuous bits of information. The effect is subtle but immediate, as audience members take their seats they are already thinking of the themes they're about to witness.

Campfire bills itself as being like "TED without the data, The Moth but interactive, and Church without the religion." My understanding of Campfire is based on my attendance at a few sessions and conversations I've had with Steven Harowitz, other staff, and audience members. What I see is a group of creative performers and artists committed to the principles of storytelling and community building. There's a healthy, positive vibe to the group and a focus on developing people with interesting, varied perspectives and experiences into engaging, compelling storytellers.

Sharing is encouraged at Campfire, but in smaller gestures and introspective actions. Campfire is not, after all, a storytelling slam; it is intended to reignite ages old traditions in a way that resonates with modern audiences. Campfire aims to slow moments down and encourage reflection. Participants, whether storyteller or audience members, are encouraged to really listen and connect with each story told. They are then encouraged to listen to and connect with those around them.

According to the Campfire website, the organization "wants to share everything we've learned after years of storytelling through public speaking, improv, journalism, marketing, and podcasting." What they're building in St. Louis is a welcoming space for a less theatrical, more personally immersive form of storytelling. You can check out the unique Campfire experience for yourself by joining storyteller Cambrie Nelson at The Stage at KDHX on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Admission is free, doors open at 7:30pm, and Nelson takes the stage at 8pm. 

 

Click below to see Tim Farmer's photos of Kim Kreitner-Riegerix Campfire appearance March 15, 2017.

Campfire with Kim Kreitner-Riegerix at the Stage, March 15, 2017

 

On the evening of Sunday, March 26, environmentalist-minded community members gathered at The Stage at KDHX for "The Invasive Species Follies: Bush Honeysuckle, Mosquitos, Us," an educational variety show with a you-can-do spin. Hosted by Jean Ponzi of KDHX's Earthorms podcast, the show featured live music, drama, and education, all centered on two of St. Louis's biggest invasive species: the bush honeysuckle and the mosquito. 

Despite the subject matter, the mood during The Invasive Species Follies multifarious acts was anything but doom and gloom. There was laughter abound during the "Honeysuckle Cabaret," a marionette show created by Christine Torlina and Gary Schimmelpfenig in which Ponzi and Dale Dufer, her husband and Follies co-producer, play characters who fight evil honeysuckle bushes and encounter levitating tables. The audience was charmed with the "Honeysuckle Table Fable" starring Ruby and Eli Ackerman, a fantastical skit in which girl and the spirit of bush honeysuckle learn to coexist. 

The evening show also featured a (sort of) 'adult-oriented' act, in which 'Sarah the Honeysuckle Stripper' (Sarah Bundy) lasciviously stripped the bark off of a honeysuckle bough in a dress handmade entirely out -- you guessed it -- honeysuckle fibers and wood. The show's lighthearted atmosphere was complemented by music from St. Louis's own Augusta Bottoms Consort, whose setlist included "Time to Kill the Rooster" off 2000's Bottomland and some Follies-exclusive songs including Gloria Attoun's true-experience "Diggin' Up That Honeysuckle." 

Sunday evening's show also included some serious moments for learning and reflection. Ponzi provided information about bush honeysuckle and mosquitos (specifically, the three types of mosquito that transmit diseases to humans), as well as things people can do in their lives to counter these pesky species. Dale Dufer of Think About Tables gave a short demonstration on how to turn honeysuckle into beautiful, organic-looking tables, thereby giving uprooted plants a second life. The show also featured Jenn DeRose of the Green Dining Alliance, who gave a presentation on the organization's mission of promoting sustainable practices within local restaurants. 

The show closed on an optimistic note with a cover of Bing Crosby's "Accentuate the Positive," sung by Ponzi and backed by the Augusta Bottoms Consort. The song encapsulated the forward-looking essence of the show. "We want the audience to come away with a positive feeling and motivation to do something," Ponzi said in a phone interview the day before, acknowledging that it's common for environmentalists to fall into the doomsday mentality. "Sometimes, it's not all that easy to make this stuff funny," Ponzi said. "But it's a worthwhile effort." 

Keep watch for the next Follies and in the meantime subscribe to the Earthworms podcasts including related episodes such as "Fight the Bite," "Beyond the War on Invasive Species," "Bush Honeysuckle: Sweep It!

 

As I stepped into the Artists First studio in Maplewood, I immediately noticed the variety of art hanging on the walls, from abstract-expressionist style paintings to delicate pencil portraits. Around tables of art supplies, a number of people were busy drawing and painting. Among them was Paul Stanton, one of the 30 or so artists who come to the Artists First on a regular basis. 

Stanton was finishing up a portrait when he agreed to talk with me about the organization as he left his painting to dry. Stanton, who just celebrated his 55th birthday, started doing sketches and portraits when was a just a little boy. For Stanton, his love of art was there from the beginning: "When I was coming up, I knew that I had the talent. Every person on earth has a God-given talent; my God-given talent was art." Since finding his way to Artists First, art facilitators have helped Stanton to improve that talent: "I am a way better artist than I was. If I didn't know what I know now, I don't know where I will be. But it's not too late for anyone."

A non-profit organization that serves aspiring artists of all ages, the specific mission of Artists First is cultivating artists with developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries or pervasive mental illnesses. Besides offering adult and youth open studios to all, Artists Firsts also provides career-minded members with a place where they have access not only to professional art-making materials but also, through the Lifeworks program, to a network of opportunities through which they may display, market and sell their artworks.

Sheila Suderwalla, Executive Director explained the ethics behind the title of the organization: "At Artists First, our philosophy is that the person is first and the disability is second. We want the artists be treated as they are, but not by their disability."

The combination of expertise in social work, art techniques and special education in staff members allows Artists First to offer not only artistic guidance, but also career coaching, financial literacy and emotional support for members artists with and without disabilities. Artist First creates an environment that promotes the improvement of interpersonal skills among those challenged by lack of socialization opportunities and an often interrupted professional support network.

Among those without disabilities, these interactions provide an improved understanding of and sympathy for the challenges those with disabilities face. "There are so many divisions in the world," said Suderwalla, "We want to break down those walls, divisions and stereotypes, and bring diverse groups of people together." 

Through its open studios and other programs, Artists First directly serves over 200 individuals a year. The Lifebooking class, for example, provides a safe harbor where individuals with disabilities can retell their stories either about transitions in life or relationships with support providers. Artists First for Veterans, an extended program of the Open Studio, emerged as a response to the specific needs of veterans readjusting to civilian life.

Beyond its in-house programing, Artists First curates outreach events, including exhibitions and parties at a variety of venues, including the Sharing Art exhibitions at UMSL's south campus and at Maplewood Public Library, where one can see some of Stanton's works on display. 

In so doing, Artists First introduces its artists and their works to a wider St. Louis community and provides more opportunity for artists to sell their work. In Suderwalla words, these exhibitions can be a "bridge" that helps the community empathize with member artists.

While artists get a commission for each artwork they sell; others, like Nakia Jones, choose to keep their work to themselves. When I met Jones, the 42-year-old could not entirely hide her creative side which showed in her red sweater, matching red lipstick, and a pair of blue chain earrings of her own design. For Jones, who comes to the studio for five hours almost every day its open, Artists First is her college. "I don't want to miss any day," she says. Her philosophy about art encapsulates the philosophy of Artists First: "Art is about love to me."

Sheila notices the progress in member artists, which she measures holistically: "What we have seen through Artists First is an increase in self-esteem and self-advocacy. They know how to stand up for themselves and advocate for what they need." People with disabilities need guidance and support along the way. They rely on organizations like Artists First to be their outlet where they feel a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. Just as Sheila said to me, "This is their purpose. This is their job. This is their community." 

As Nancy Fowler reported for St. Louis Public Radio, Artists First faced a challenge last summer that many arts organizations anticipate may become the unfortunate norm. The St. Louis Office for Developmental Disability Resources planned to cut the annual budget for nonprofit organizations by 20 percent. The scenario got worse for Artists First when Suderwalla was told in early May that half of Artists First's budget needs to be cut. In fear that the organization might have to close, Artists First negotiated and cut costs within the studio therefore was able to continue commit to 200 individuals. As Suderwalla said to SLPR, "On paper, in black and white, it looks pretty bad, but in our heart of hearts we have a lot of a faith."

Friday, February 17, Artists First will host its Arts in Unity event from 6-9 p.m., an art exhibition in celebration of diversity with musical performances by Dave Stone, Brian Curran, Googolplexia, Sole Loan, Kieran Molloy, Gary Schoenberger and others.

  

Gina Alvarez is the Executive Director at Living Arts Studio, a non-profit organization based in Maplewood that gives artists with disabilities a place to explore their passion for art. "We aren't approaching art as a rehabilitation or therapeutic tool," Alvarez explains -- nonetheless adding, "art does change lives." Given the freedom to express themselves and adapt to positive feedback, artists develop a unique confidence in their abilities: "They can initially walk in and think 'I don't know,' and then a year later say 'I am an artist.'"

Valentine' Day celebrations.

When I visited the studio just before Valentine's Day, everyone was getting ready to show their love. Colorful heart-shaped balloons made the environment even homier, while fellow artists collaborated on a project in which they drew hearts in their own unique styles. 

Aided by Alvarez, Living Arts not only facilitates art-making but also introduces artists with disabilities to a wider community beyond the studio. Member artists have exhibited their work at venues such as the Sheldon Art Gallery and the University City Library. For Alvarez, this represents the community-building promise of art: "The level of exhibition opportunities they are participating in is notable. I think that's huge. The sense of accomplishment anybody would experience with opportunities like that is tremendous." She also believes in the potential of her artists: "Pursuing exhibitions at high-calibre venues shows that people with disabilities can participate on that level, and should, and will."  

Since joining Living Arts Studio in May of 2012, Alvarez has witnessed the progress her artists have made in their art careers. But more importantly, she is thrilled to see them gain community and friendship in the studio as they build trust between each other and with facilitators. "I don't think it's easy walking into any studio and agreeing to be part of something that you are not entirely sure what it is."

Living Arts Studio is always actively seeking methods to improve their programs and increase accessibility. "We work with cultural institutions through workshops, and see what accessibility looks like in programing, in art tools, and how you adapt tools to meet the needs of people with disabilities," Alvarez explained. The studio also uses the help of other institutions to "mould the programs into a more universal design." As Alvarez put it, "Through universality, there is inclusion."  

        Larry Eisenberg at work.

Artist Larry Eisenberg has been part of the community at Living Arts Studio for over a year now. Seeing his father work on architecture design growing up, Eisenberg has taken to drawing houses and making art that shows a sense of space. "I am always looking for something that reminds me of landscape beauty," he pointed out. For Eisenberg, the freedom of creativity is expansive: "You never make mistakes because it doesn't matter if it it's art." Laughing, he added, "Nobody knows."

Melelani Perry, another artist, found belonging at Living Arts. When I asked Perry what the studio means to her, without hesitation she said, "Safe. Everyone is friendly and keeps us laughing." 

Melelani Perry with her work.

Perry came to the studio two years ago wanting something different. She learned to sew and alter her own clothes. A recurring theme in Perry's work has been images of women. Using self-portraits or pictures from magazines or self-portraits, she bedazzles her women with colorful tapes, glitter and stickers. Inspired by Buddhism and the mandala, Perry often gives her women a third eye, a symbol of spiritual enlightenment. She also uses markers for exaggerated makeup, which adds a postmodern quality to her work. "I put myself in my art a lot. It's my signature," Perry explained. Alvarez added, "Because you are the one thing you know the best, right?" 

The fulfillment Alvarez gets from her work goes beyond seeing the positive change art-making can bring to others -- it has also made her a better artist. "They work totally intuitively without criticism of their own personal process, often with reckless abandon. The freedom they have is extremely inspiring to me."

Producing sculptural objects and installations using ceramics, glass, fiber and print techniques, Alvarez has exhibited her own work in solo and group exhibitions at many venues, including the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Gallery 210, Boots Contemporary Art, the Center for Creative Arts, Craft Alliance, the Des Lee Gallery, Pele Prints and fort gondo. She has received abundant recognition from both local and national organizations and has also curated many shows at these same spaces. 

Besides her careers as an artist and director of Living Arts, Alvarez teaches at St. Louis Community College, Forest Park and serves as Executive Director of VSA Missouri, which promotes arts resources for people with disabilities. 

Her path to Living Arts began when she was Gallery Director at the St. Louis Artists' Guild. While working there, she and the former Executive Director of Living Arts Studio and VSA Missouri curated an exhibition in the Sight and Vision series called Speaking Volumes, for artists Susan Shie, who is visually-impaired, and Richard Meyers, who is hearing-impaired. Through that experience Alvarez decided to come work at Living Art Studio.

Alvarez recalled how, with no background in social services, she went through a learning curve as she transitioned from a working artist to something of a community organizer, aided in part by her experience in the Regional Arts Commission's Community Arts Training Institute. But being an artist rather than a social worker has meant that she makes sure to treat members as artists first and foremost. Alvarez explains, "It has changed my personal practice to be less individual and more community-based. It has had an impact on me personally in ways I never anticipated as a working artist." 

A hot, humid weekend and complete shutdown of I-44 did little to dampen the spirits of nearly 100,000 visitors to Tower Grove Park for the 2016 Festival of Nations.

The annual event celebrates diversity in St. Louis through art, music, dance and food. It's basically a big party thrown by the nearby International Institute of St. Louis.

By the numbers, this year's Festival of Nations boasted:

  • 3 music stages
  • 60 nations represented
  • 40 food booths
  • 30 gift booths

The music and dance performances spanned the globe, covering Latin America, Russia, Wales, Hawaii, Asia and Turkey, among others. One of the most popular sections of the Festival of Nations was the food booths. The offerings included everything from Caribbean jerk chicken, to mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish with mashed plantains.

The International Institute's three pillars of service are immersion, investment and inclusion. 

Photos by Bill Motchan and Jason Cluts.



 

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