Hello, you. by Roell Schmidt

Hello, you.

Produced on Bell Records by Marlo Thomas and Ms. Foundation for Women (1972)

Hello, you.

Minae Mizumura

Hello, you.

Lorraine Hansberry

Hello, you.

Herta Müller

Hello, you.

Jenny Magnus

Hello, you.

Desmond Dekker

Instead of X or Y, I claim allegiance to Generation Free To Be You And Me. I was one of the kids who grew up playing (over and over and over) the hot pink record album of stories and songs about a land “where you and me are free to be you and me.”

Maybe it’s where my belief began that the arts can change the world.

Maybe it’s also why I’m still seeking out words and stories and songs that can help bolster that belief.

Because navigating the world, the arts, and the arts world can often feel like a land far from where we are and even further from freedom.

Like performance spaces, libraries are a place of sanctuary for me. On a recent pilgrimage, I stood in the Edgewater library stacks holding a new discovery: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel Volume One. A back-of-the-neck tingling recognition grew from her opening sentence:

To be an artist by occupation or an artist by calling – these are two different things.*

and continued on through her preface:

I wonder if I’ll ever be able to claim to be an ‘artist’ with a clear conscience…I can only imagine how gratifying it would be if I could actually earn my living making art…But such an ambition merely concerns ‘occupation’ – the business side of art making…Anyone who somehow has to make a living shares this worry, yet for people who make art it isn’t what matters most; in their case, one’s ‘calling’ matters more.

Hello, you. These are things I wrestle with, think about, rant about. My worries and dreams shared by a Japanese novelist, quietly waiting to be introduced. I’ve been waiting for you and here you are.

In the land of Free To Be, every girl grows to be her own woman. But, growing to be your own artist. Ah. This is the struggle between vocation and avocation, and getting hung up on who gets to wear a capital “A” emblazoned across their art. This struggle, over time, has distilled for me into a three-sentence artistic belief system:

An artist is simply someone who makes art.

An artist makes art by trying what works and trying what doesn’t work.

An artist gets better by doing.

Back in the 1990s, while waiting tables and temping to afford film projects and writing, I found in the Blackstone library shelves To Be Young, Gifted and Black and discovered a letter Lorraine Hansberry wrote in 1952:

First about ‘my work’:
1. I am a writer. I am going to write…

Hello, you. I sighed with relief. Hansberry’s mantra, copied out in scores of notebooks and typed on many, many a blank computer screen, kept me going through the next two decades’ occupations in public relations, marketing, fundraising and arts administration and the five years it took me to complete an MFA.

Like all belief systems, beyond those three basic tenets, subjective experience has yielded a few commandments that I have felt compelled, like Little Bunny Foo Foo, to go around scooping up more than a few artists (myself included) and bopping them on the head with:

You are the only person asking you to make art. Keep asking.

You are the only person who can make your art. Keep making.

Keep your font of inspiration filled.

Take artistic risks.

Be brave.

Share.

But commandments can crumble during the crises of confidence and dark nights of the soul that come after you’ve taken risks, been brave, and shared only to meet with problematic reviews, under-populated houses, rejection emails, and your friends and family sick of you and your absorption with this calling/yearning/need to make believe and make others believe with you.

That’s when the Harold Washington Library providentially introduces you to Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel:

If you don’t have the right things, you improvise. The wrong things become necessary. Then the necessary things turn out to be the only right things, simply because they’re what you have.

Hello (and thank) you.

Or in the words of Jenny Magnus’ song “Creativity” off of Crooked Mouth’s Yes Face album:

There’s nothing more than this

It’s just a question of what we can see

And what we could see if we could really see

You’re doing it right…

This philosophic adjustment often only comes to me after a “hello, you” moment, a lot of deep breaths, enough sleep, more and better calories, and a regaining of perspective which translated, comes down to:

If you make art, see art, experience art, engage with art, you are part of the art world: the dance-theater-performance-music-film-literary-sound-visual-younameit-interdisciplinary art community. There is no separate world, community – only different economies of scale.

A grant/award/residency/a deeply thoughtful and considered review/a full house/publication does not make you more of an artist; not getting a grant/award/residency/thoughtful review/full house/published does not make you less of one. (Just one with less $.)

Being a member of a community means contributing to the ecosystem not the egosystem.

But even with all this lovely philosophy, it’s an ongoing effort to keep saying yes to art. That’s where Signs come in. One day upon saying YES quite loudly in the form of quitting a soul crushing job and before my workaholic nature could be set loose on the new one, I discovered that Desmond Dekker was playing THAT VERY NIGHT at the no-longer-extant Bottom Lounge. It was his last show in Chicago of his last tour ever and his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” was my personal anti-discouragement art anthem. Talk about Portents.

You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try
Try and try, you’ll succeed at last

Hello, you.

You artists by calling.

Hello, you.

You self-producers, you brave makers, you risk takers.

Hello, you.

You audience members, open and curious, excited to share an experience beyond your own.

Hello, you.

Change the world. Free your art…

*Minae Mizumura’s Preface – the Preface that shouted konichiwa! so loudly to me in the library – is about writers, specifically novelists. Her frame of reference, her truth. My truth required the adaptation to reflect art makers of any denomination so I swapped “writer” with “artist” here.