From our Education & Public Programs department, an evolving guidebook navigating the expanded terrain of art and creative life.
On January 3rd, 2015, I got to debut a brand new show at the Walker Art Center called ‘The Time Wanderers.” When I met with Frannie and Christina last June and they proposed that I make a show based on the Walker’s history I said, “yes!” Of course I said yes, because that’s what I say to interesting and intimidating opportunities. But I didn’t really know what the show would look like or how I would put it together.
Somehow, many hours of reading and looking through old images turned into a 50 minute all-ages comedy show. I’d decided that the key to this show connecting with audience members as young as 1 or 2 and keeping them engage while actually covering some significant moments from the Walker’s history was that large chunks of the show be improvised and that we get as many young people down on the stage as possible.
If you make a show with the idea that for much of the performance you’ll have anywhere from 2 to 20 young people on stage, you have to get comfortable with the idea of controlled chaos. That’s why I knew I needed to get live music on stage from Dietrich Poppen and perform the action on stage with one of the most naturally funny people I know who also happens to be gifted at staying calm while things seem slightly out of control on stage, Andy Kraft.
With this small, solid performing team together, the amazing Doug in the tech booth, and some really solid show elements that would ensure no matter how far afield any one scene may go we would always have a clear way back to the core structure, I knew something good would happen on stage. But it’s never a certainty that things will go well or that an audience will be on board for new experiences.
One of the great things about the families who show to First Free Saturday events at the Walker is that they walk in with the expectation to not only consume art but to participate in the making of art. The Education and Community Programs department has spent years making a promise to its audiences that they will be able to engage in creative acts when they show up and the result is rooms full of people who don’t need to be asked a second time to come on down to the stage. Because of this, we went from moments in the script that said things like, “hopefully one or two people come down to the stage and act out a scene,” to wondering how we were going to keep every single person in the audience from flooding the stage to closing the show by inviting everyone who was willing to come on down move their bodies in order to prove that dance was a legitimate art form.
I’ve experienced a great many things on stages in front of audiences but there is no other experience on the planet like dancing on a stage with 40 young people who are all grinning ear to ear and then realizing they have gotten ahold of several roles of tinfoil and have now all decided I should be wrapped in that tin foil. There is still a long way to go towards convincing the world that comedy and improvisational theater are important and powerful art forms, but where I stand there is no deeper expression of the idea of Art than interacting on with those young people on the McGuire theater stage.
*Levi Weinhagen is serving as Artist in Residence for Education and Community Programs from September 2014 through February 2015*
When I found out I would be an Artist in Residence for the Walker Art Center’s Education and Community Programs department I was really excited. Immediately, my mind started working on the question of what fun ideas could I try out with their audiences and what ways could I play in the Center’s spaces. The focus before my residency started was very much on “what can I bring to this place.”
The largest centerpiece of my residency is a live all-ages show to be performed on January 3rd as part of the First Free Saturday 75th Anniversary celebration. If you’ll check your calendars you’ll notice that date has passed and the show has been performed for two fantastic and energetic audiences. More on how those shows went in a post next week. But the run up to the show was several month of research in the Walker archives and the last few weeks before the show of turning historical facts into entertaining live theater.
A strange thing happened as I turned research into a comedy show, I learned way more than I ever thought I would know about the history of the Walker Art Center.
Did you know that in 1963 the Walker created the Center Opera Company which would later become the Minnesota Opera? I didn’t know that but now I totally do.
Can you list all five Directors who have led the Walker over their years along with the years of their directorships? That’s not something I ever thought I would need to know and somehow I built a live comedy show around those specific details. Seriously, I know when the directors where around and have a decent sense of how they wanted the Center to be viewed and engaged with by the community and by the greater art world.
These are things someone who writes and performs comedy for both young people and grown ups wouldn’t generally spend a lot of time learning. I can’t work in a bunch of 1970s and 80s Laurie Anderson (she performed at the Walker in 1978 with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra) jokes during a show about physical comedy and expect to get laughs from 7 year olds. Most of my audience typically doesn’t care that Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George Barns was acquired in 1954. Individually, these facts are that compelling to me, but taken as a whole, after hours of study all while looking for the funny (which is really the only way my brain gets excited to learn something) I found out that the story of this place is complex and interesting because it’s the story of people.
That’s how the Walker tricked me. They made me think I was bringing comedy and play to their family audiences when in reality I was learning the human stories that make up this place. I was learning how truly significant this institution has been to the arts and culture community of the Twin Cities that I hold so dear. The Walker and the artists, directors, staff and audiences who move in and out of it have been way more impactful on my personal and professional life than I ever would have imagined for way longer than I knew. So far, my residency hasn’t been about just getting to try new things, it’s been about learning where I fit in a lot of different people’s stories.
It’s also been about struggling to write a solid H. Harvard Arneson joke. I’ve still got nothing.
*Levi Weinhagen is serving as Artist in Residence for Education and Community Programs from September 2014 through February 2015*
“Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” – George Carlin
Comedy, at its purest form, is about taking away as much as possible from an idea so that all that’s left is the joke. The highest praise a person who writes comedy can pay towards a joke or a piece of comedy is to say that there’s “no fat on it.” This honing of an idea down to its funniest and simplest form is where the artistry and craftsmanship of comedy meet. I believe that comedy in all of it’s forms; sketch, improv, stand-up, storytelling, physical, and some as-of-yet undiscovered mind-blowing form are all art as worthy of reverence and praise as any style of painting or school or architecture.
“I would have been a lot better off if I’d studied more when I was growing up, y’know. But you know where it all went wrong was the day they started the spelling bee. Because up until that day I was an idiot, but nobody else knew.” – Brian Regan
I see this idea of taking away everything but the joke present in how all art is made. There’s the certainly overused example of Michelangelo explaining how he know what to cut away in order to create the statue of David by saying, “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.” I have no idea if Michelangelo ever actually said those words. But I do like to imagine him saying this quote in a broad stereotypical Italian restaurant like Super Mario in an Olive Garden commercial.
“I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.” – Mitch Hedberg
True or not, the reason this Michelangelo quote has been sited so often is because it gets at how the creative process really works. To make something good, you have to start with a lot of things that in the long run will reveal themselves to be not that good thing. Whether it be a block of marble, tubes full of acrylic paints, or a vague thought about how much rice constitutes a serving. Here’s how comedian Cameron Esposito describes the joke writing process: “All jokes start as crap. Some stay crappy. Some can be P90Xed into a set ready for TV.”
“I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.” – Sarah Silverman
Because I make comedy and because I’m so interested in the process of making comedy, I can’t look at a painting or watch a film without quickly turning my thoughts to the process of making that thing. This focus on process can at times mean I don’t get to just purely enjoy a thing, I don’t get to always live inside the experience of something. But it also means my appreciation for art that can move and affect people is deep and filled with appreciation. And for me, that’s worth missing some of the pure joy of experiencing art.
*Levi Weinhagen is serving as Artist in Residence for Education and Community Programs from September 2014 through February 2015*
Every second and fourth Tuesday of the month the Walker presents “Arty Pants,” activities and programs aimed at people aged 3 to 5 and their adults. On Tuesday, November 25th, I had the great privilege of working with a group of tiny artists, sharing an art form I love, falling down. I worked with an excited and hilarious group of children to help them make their own banana peels and then we went over how to do a proper physical comedy fall. And then all these 3, 4, and 5 years olds fell down and clapped for each other. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a museum.
There was a moment early into the falling down part of my art activity with these youngsters when one of them fell down on my blue padded mat and everyone clapped and then he just laid there. He wasn’t hurt or anything, I think he was just enjoying laying down after having just gotten a round of applause. I’m a little embarrassed how well I can relate to that desire to bask in the applause. So, I helped him to his feet and then said to all the participants that I had left out one key part of doing physical comedy. I had forgotten to tell them what is needed in every comedy fall or physical comedy injury, you have to get back up.
It’s is a very grounding, human thing to laugh when someone trips and falls. One of my favorite things about physical comedy is that it doesn’t require everyone speak the same language or even share the same cultural touchstones. But, the laugh at a fall is quickly cut short if the “audience” thinks the person who fell is actually badly hurt. The biggest laughs, when it comes to physical comedy, require the at least assumed knowledge that no one is tragically hurt. Trust me, it’s not funny unless you get back up.
You want to know an amazing secret, though? This same principle applies to every fall or failure in life. If you get back up, you can always make something great out of what appears to be a fall.
History is littered with entrepreneurs who have had businesses collapse, scientists who have had experiments blow up in their faces, and artists who had work rejected time and again only to have them regain their footing and do things that change the way people think, create or do business. The successes and breakthroughs of a company like Apple with Steve Jobs at the helm after he had been forced out of the company makes everyone look back on his past work and reassess what appeared to be failures and view them as setups to an amazing punchline. I think you can see the same reassessment of one’s artistic past in the ups and downs of Robert Downey Jr’s acting career or the way Georgia O’Keefe’s early work as a commercial artist, although it was work she hated doing, is now viewed as informing what would become her unique views and approach to painting.
Almost any fall can be made a comedic success if you you aren’t so damaged from the landing that you aren’t able to get back up. And almost any metaphorical fall can be turned into a success if you can figure how to get back up and keep on moving. The only way we can turn our personal tragedies into triumphs is by letting everyone know the falls didn’t kills us. Heck, sometimes they’ll even applaud.
Nearly 75 years ago, the Walker Art Center became a public art center. The Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections exhibition is part of the looking back through the years. If you visit the Walker you can also pick up a Walker Sketchbook. The sketchbook is built upon questions while also creating space for drawing, writing, and general on the page creativity.
I have an 8 year old daughter named Irene. She’s amazing and she’s the reason I went from writing and performing adult theater and comedy to making all-ages live theater and creating projects that connect with young people and families. Children have countless measurable and immeasurable impacts on the lives of their parents. I’m sure there are things in my life now that I’m not even aware are the result of my having and raising a child. So, it’s really exiting for me that so much of my creative work has been directly influenced by my parenthood.
I love questions. For me, questions are the best way to learn about other people and about ourselves. The Walker is a place built upon questions and, as the common wisdom goes, all good art raises more questions than it answers. So I was quite happy to my daughter light up when given a Walker Sketchbook last time she joined me at the Center. One of my favorite things about young people, although it can also be horribly frustrating, is their ability to think in wildly unpredictable ways. This week my daughter presented me with her completed Sketchbook. So I thought I would share some of the results here.
Q: What makes you Curious?
Worms? [coupled with a pencil drawing of a worm]
Q: What is a Dream?
A Sleeping imagination.
Q: Where does art take you?
It takes me to a whole nother world.
Q: How do we make art together?
Q: What is the story (of art)?
Q: What if there was no art?
My brain will melt.
I love these answers and can’t imagine I could give better answers. But I encourage you to get your own Walker Sketchbook and see where it takes you.
As I was wandering through the Walker library this week, pretending I knew anything about most of the artists written about in the numerous shelves full of books, I started thinking about how important “fame” is to our understanding of art.
While it makes me feel a bit like a cliche, I’ll admit this thought hit me when I noticed that Andy Warhol had hundreds of books on him and his work. One of the first things a young person learns when exploring modern art is that Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
What struck me, though, was that there were so many more books on Warhol than all the other artists covered on the Walker shelves. Warhol’s work was and continues to be important and influential to art, artists, and popular culture. But, I think he has so many more books because he’s an art celebrity who transcended the art world and became and pop culture celebrity.
Much like how the people who win the wars are the ones who get to tell the stories of those wars, the people who become celebrities in their fields are ultimately the ones who make up the stories of those fields. With the ease of finding a voice provided by online tools, there seems to be an increase in people seeking celebrity for celebrity sake without any real concern about making something worthwhile or being know for a skill or ability. This is troubling but perhaps inevitable as the people we hold up as important, even if they’re viewed as important because of what they accomplished, are celebrated as people. We almost always put the people first and then get into the actual accomplishments.
I don’t know that I have any conclusion for this post but I do have a question. Are you able to think about the art that you find compelling or that moves you without it impacting how you think about the artist who made that work? Should you be able to?
The Walker Art Center was built on an ancient burial ground. Alright, as far as I know, that’s not true. But I bet that opening sentence would make you want to keep reading that story.
First sentences to stories can be perilous. Whether it’s meant to be read or being written for a live performance, the first sentence has the job of being interesting enough to pull the audience in but not so exciting as to over-promise or set-up the rest of the story for disappointment. As a writer and performer of comedy I know that if the first thing I say on stage is the funniest thing said in the entire performance the audience will walk away disappointed or at the very least underwhelmed by the overall experience. And if you see a popular band you’ll notice they will never play their biggest hit to open the show.
The same challenge exists for curators when staging a museum exhibition.
On October 16th, the Walker’s new “Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections” opened. In celebration of the Walker’s 75 years of public institution-hood, the new exhibit covers the past 75 years of acquisitions and exhibitions. This exhibition is laid out over three galleries with multiple entry points. There’s very little control over where a visitor first engages with the exhibition or how they consume the work.
At one of the entry points to “Art at the Center,” visitors are confronted by Alfons Schilling’s Untitled (Andromeda) spin-painting. Schilling’s piece spins at a rate of 3 revolutions per second which not only impacts how a visitor connects with the work but also sets a tone for experiencing the exhibit overall. The work actually moves, which immediately disrupts expectations of art hanging on a wall in a gallery. But it’s neutral in black and white colors and it manages to be fairly non-aggressive for a large spinning piece of art. The piece works to pull a visitor into the exhibition without being so overwhelming or even so compelling as to as stop visitors from wanting to move on or draining their energy.
It’s fun to think of how curators pace out an exhibition the same way I would think about putting together a comedy show or how a choreographer would put together a dance. You have to consider how the audience will feel from moment to moment and how each of the various parts can impact one another. And when a curator gets it right, just like in comedy, no one really notices the intentionality behind the staging.
For the October First Free Saturday we put together a fun Fill-in-the-Blanks activity that lets folks create their own unique description of Art Expanded, 1958-1978. You can print your own Fill-in-the-Blank with this pdf: Walker Fill In The Blanks – Art Expanded exhibition edition
Here’s how 8 year old Benjamin put together his description of the exhibit.
We also helped visitors write jokes and invited them to share some of their favorite jokes with us. Below is a video compiling some of those awesome jokes.
“Before answering your question I want to be sure that all of us understand what I mean when I say artist. I am not only talking about painters or sculptors, I am talking also about the men who design furniture, automobiles, refrigerators, tableware, and the things we all have around us every day. For all of these artist the Center does a very great deal. Artists must have people who use and appreciate their work. It stands to reason that if we, as a people, are more conscious of what the artist does for us, the artist will have greater support and more economic security. The Center is building among people an interest and appreciation for art. Although the Center also provides 80 jobs for artists and technicians, in the long run, its work of bringing more people to the support of art is more lasting than the paycheck it gives the artist.”
—Daniel Defenbacher, first director of the Walker, radio interview, August 1941
I’ve been digging through the Walker archives recently and, with the help of the amazing Walker archivist Jill Vuchetich, I got my hands on transcripts from correspondences and radio interviews from 1940 and 1941 surrounding the early days of the Walker’s public institution-hood. (One quick side note about archivist Jill Vuchetich: she is lovely and super-knowledgeable. Seriously, I dare you to try and ask her something about the Walker’s history that she can’t answer. End of digression.)
There’s this fascinating thing I’ve noticed while going through random images, texts, and other museum detritus from the past. Half of the things I’m reading or seeing from 50-plus years ago feel very dated and specific to their era, and the other half feel entirely relevant and contemporary. I know things are often cyclical and art is specifically a place where something old is constantly being made new again. I’m not a genius, but I work hard to stay on the right side of total idiot.
But the above quote I pulled feels so close in so many ways to conversations that are surrounding my creative community all the time lately that I can’t quite process my reaction to it. I can’t decide if it’s thrilling to see that 70 years ago significant thinkers in the art world were working to remind the general public that art is so much more than what you typically see in a museum or if it’s disheartening to think that one of the biggest barriers artists have in connecting with their audience, being perceived as human and accessible, hasn’t actually progressed in any significant way.
Luckily, I’ve got a plan. I love working creatively with young people for many reasons; they’re not worried about looking stupid, they’re generally excited to try something new, and they think up awesome and unique ideas constantly. But the main reason is because young people have not yet been told that fart jokes aren’t “Art.”
I think the democratization of art and what people think of as art lives and dies with our children. Any programming I create for young people, any performances I stage for an all-ages audience, any work I make with this audience in mind is in service of highlighting to them that they are constantly making and consuming art in countless forms. It’s not just about making people “more conscious of what art does for us,” but also about making people more conscious of how much art they are doing all the time. The more people who self-identify as makers of art, the more support there will be for art in all its forms. The only way to change people’s relationship to art and artists on a grand scale is to connect with them when they’re young and keep connecting as they make their way through the world.
A vital part of that ongoing connection is pointing out how funny it is when someone slips and falls on a wet floor, and then pointing out how artistic that funny fall can be.
Hi, my name’s Levi Weinhagen.
From now through January 2015 I will be the Artist in Residence for the Walker Art Center’s Education and Community Programs department. This opportunity will give me the chance to combine my work as an all-ages comedy and theater writer, improvisational performer, and public engagement artist and find new and exciting ways to play with people young and old who are coming to the Walker to learn and grow.
There are two core driving forces influencing every move I make with my work. I want to deepen the understanding of and highlight the importance of intergenerational connection. And I’m on a mission to show the world how tremendously powerful comedy is as a tool for connection and understanding of everything from the very simple to the incredibly complex.
There may be nothing I find more frustrating than adults showing condescension towards young people. Children are full of amazing thoughts and ideas and are in constant search for adults who will show them respect and work with them. Sadly, the same kind of treatment is often shown towards the very old in our society. The work I’ve been a part of over the past 15 years has been more and more created for the very old, the very young and everyone in between with the idea that creating truly shared experiences for people of all-ages creates more opportunities for connection between them and fosters the sharing of ideas and builds relationships.
I believe deeply in the uniting power of comedy and am fascinated by what we can learn about cultures, regions and communities by examining the comedy culture of a place. Comedy as an art form and as a tool is often held in low regard, partly because it is so prevalent but partly because when it is used properly no one can see the hard work that has gone into creating something comedic. I want to help people understand how powerful and important various forms of comedy are to their lives.
My deep belief in the power of comedy to connect people and ideas and my drive to break down generational barriers can coalesce in remarkable ways. I want to create opportunities for children to feel like leaders amongst their peers as well as amongst adults. I want to create opportunities for aging people to feel they have a voice that is heard, respected, and valued. And I want to use the tools that are unique to comedy to make these challenges seem less daunting and more enjoyable to confront.
A few big questions I’m always seeking answers to are: what’s funny about today, what’s funny about art, and what can we learn about ourselves by being honest and vulnerable without being self-serious?
A few specific questions I hope to answer in my time at the Walker include: where’s the best place to do a pratfall in the Walker? Is it easier to write puns or knock-knock jokes inside an art museum? What’s the best part of a guided museum tour led by a five year old? Which color is the funniest? Which color is the least funny?