Mining for Gold in Mississippi
By Lani Gerity, DA, ATR

"I do believe that the best of who we are is within us, all of us have these amazing, sparkly, colorful and wonderful ideas, images, and stories, and it is our job to bring that out."

You might not think of Mississippi in terms of mining for buried treasure, but that's what I think of when I think of Mississippi. I learned in Mississippi that the best of who we are is inside us, all of us, and it is our job to bring that out, like gold out of a mine. But how I learned this in the Delta region of Mississippi is a story full of curiosities, cat fish and hushpuppies.

It was my curiosity about how a cat fish race might might be run, that got us into the Delta for the first time. I had come down from Canada to present at a Creativity and Healing conference in Jackson, Mississippi a few years back, and having a day free, my friend Susan Anand, also an art therapist, checked the local papers for cultural activities. There was going to be a cat fish race in Leland, Mississippi on that day, so we piled her pre-teen daughters, their art materials, and personal sound systems into the van and took off for Leland. So many other things awakened our curiosity on that ride, that we actually missed the race. (Have you ever seen a boll weevil eradicator? Do you know how they work?) We had stopped for lunch (cat fish, fried pickles, and hush puppies) in a local eatery. When we asked for directions to the cat fish race, the waitresses told us to avoid a certain area of town. They gave us a complicated route to the town square because the more direct route was "dangerous". This naturally fueled our curiosity and we had to see what dangerous looked like in Leland. What we discovered was a huge disparity in living conditions, based on economics, culture, and of course race. We didn't see anything particularly dangerous, just an old man fanning himself in the doorway of a little church, a fellow sitting nearly alone on his porch with a few dozen cats and kittens, and on another porch, family members of all ages, spilling out into the heat. All of these buildings were what were called "shot-gun shacks", because if you fired a gun at the front door it would go straight through and out the back door.

I became very curious if it would be possible for a couple of white women (one from Canada and one from Indiana, both of whom studied in New York City) to come into a Delta community and provide an intergenerational puppet making, storytelling workshop that would be relevant to the community. My experiences in doing workshops with grandparents and grandchildren, led me to believe that when the thing being created (a puppet character or a story) comes from within the artist, you would not be imposing your narrative or your values on that artist. Susan and I talked over the idea of offering a workshop in a school setting where we could help uncover the strengths of the community. Susan mentioned our idea to a colleague, who was the Director for the Mississippi Arts Commission Whole Schools Initiative, and the following spring, we were invited to work with children at an elementary school in Hollandale where the school's principal was struggling with the effects of a murder within the community.

For one week, we spent 1-1/2 hours each afternoon with 10 children who were paired with adults creating puppets and stories in a group format. The workshop was designed as an integrative activity between children and community. Family members, including parents and grandparents, were encouraged to participate along with the children as a way of discovering knowledge, story, and problem solving in a creative atmosphere. After the puppets were made, the children and adult participants worked out their characters and discovered a group narrative by finding a problem that these diverse puppets shared, had by uncovering the solution to the problem. The resulting group story was performed for other children in the school, and for members of the Arts Commission as well. The results were amazing, an integrated, harmonious community of puppets, preformers, and audience members, and a palpable feeling of support, pride and collaboration.

During our free time, when we weren't facilitating the workshop, we began interviewing self-taught artists, discussing inner satisfaction, inspiration, as well as concerns. We found that we had plenty to learn from these artists, that we hadn't learned "it all" in New York. Even if we were part of the dominant culture with all the attached privileges, these artists were willing to teach us, and that in itself was eye-opening. And we wanted to learn from them - to hear their stories, to see how they did their work, to understand what gave meaning to their lives, and what their concerns were. We learned from them about the importance of giving - and the importance of being able to receive, as well, that perhaps even with all our dominant culture privileges (or perhaps because of these privileges) there were gaps in our learning and in our growth.

One of the main concerns voiced by most of the artists that we spoke with was that the children around them seemed to be looking outside of themselves and their communities for satisfaction and fulfillment. Many of the artists told us they believe that mainstream culture and the media contribute to this tendency by causing dissatisfaction in the children with their community and then fail to provide the children with a viable alternative. As a result, some of the self-taught artists we met were trying to find ways to engage children in creative work that would teach them about finding satisfaction within rather than becoming completely dependent upon the media or mainstream culture. For example, the Twig Lady of Hollandale became invested in the lives of the children in her town by visiting the school to give special art lessons. She would start with her own work, showing them her little sculptures made of twigs and found objects. Then she would give them plenty of simple, everyday materials - twigs, bags, and wallpaper samples - and teach the children to use what they have on hand to make art. The children learned from her that art can help recreate memories and can help teach us to love and care for our origins and roots.

We met the quilters of Cultural Crossroads that actively sought to bring children and young people into their quilting collective, with the idea that if young people can focus on something beautiful, something that they like, then they will do a good job and they will feel satisfied. Mrs. Hystercine Rankin talked about the joy she got from teaching young mothers in the collective, and the joy they got in making quilts for their babies and for themselves, and their excitement at finding that this was an art form they could practice at home, too.

And there was Carolyn Norris who absolutely adored the Delta, with all it's hard work, sweat, and joy. She had followed her husband to this area of Mississippi, and when he left, she stayed. She talked about the joy in the doing, and teaching that to children. She turned her garage into an open studio space for the neighbor children to drop in "so they could learn about this joy."

Woodworker, George Berry looked at teaching children as service. He thought children today need to feel good about themselves, and this is something you can find in woodworking, in making something with your own two hands, making the best that you can with what you have.

"Doc" Mitchell also wanted to talk about what children need. They need to learn by watching. "It's like they have a seed inside them, and you can show them what they can do with some wood and a knife, show them what is possible, and then this seed might wake up." He gave us a walking stick he was working on, hoping we'd talk to teachers about showing kids what they could do and letting them try. He also said generosity was important, it creates good feelings between people and he had time, money, and energy to be generous, because he wasn't interested in "keeping up with the Joneses".

There was Rev. Anthony Nollie who created story sticks, each stick having its own phrase or story to engage the viewers mind. "These are like gifts. If you walk with a cane and you need to rest, you sit down and read the stick, it keeps your mind engaged and you don't feel pain." He thought it was important to let children know that they could do anything if they put their mind to it.

We also met and talked with potter, Rachel Balentine, the "Clay Woman of Mississippi". She had many rich and insightful stories about her life. Rachel told us about how she discovered clay and pottery. She said that after attending an art colony in 1999 and viewing a video about Nigerian pottery techniques, she felt as if she'd merged with the Nigerian potter, everything felt that familiar - "her hands became my hands and I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life - go home, dig my own clay, use natural materials". Rachel believed in the importance of giving children inspiring experiences, as well as their own creative experiences. Children should have opportunities to witness the historical tradition of art making from their own communities. She routinely takes children and groups of teachers to visit and talk with traditional crafts people, like her mother, a quilter, or basket maker Milton Goss in Sardis, Mississippi. On the afternoon that we went with Rachel to his home, he was at work on a basket made from split oak. He told us that he learned basket making from his family - his grandfather, father, brothers and an uncle all made baskets that were used for storing cotton and sold to the local cotton gins. When she has made the mistake of for-warning Mr. Goss, Rachel is still able to take folks through his yard, see how oak is split, where it is soaked and woven, and the final products, great piles of baskets on the porch. When she brings teachers, Rachel suggests that they bring their students, and help inspire them with the gifts of their attention to craft, tradition and sharing of wisdom.

What we learned from our Hollandale experience and the self-taught artists was something that is emphasized by the Mississippi Arts Commission and the Whole Schools Program - the citizens of Mississippi have a tremendous storehouse of strengths. They have a living history of creative responses to a variety of life's challenges. They have living examples of using what is available and on hand as creatively and colorfully as possible. They have a strong sense of roots and a connection to the land and community that is embedded in a rich spiritual life, strong family ties, and longstanding musical traditions of the Delta.

Following the Hollandale workshop, we were asked to offer instruction on puppet making and storytelling at the Whole Schools Institute, a program sponsored by the Mississippi Arts Commission. The primary goals of this program are to develop arts infused curriculum in public schools and expand state funding for arts instruction.

We were excited about the chance to work at the Institute with teachers who could take what they learned to their schools and communities. And we began to broaden our own thinking about developing a collaborative, integrative, inside out approach for our workshop. For example, we start each session with a reading, seated in a circle on the carpeted floor of the school art gallery. We encourage thought and dialogue about mirroring with some questions about where we see ourselves reflected in the culture around us.

One of the stories read to the teachers has been that of the singer, Ysaye Barnwell. She tells a story of a friend who grew up had no mirrors in her house. "But how did you know how you looked in the morning", Ysaye worried. "If I wanted to know how I looked or even who I was, I looked into my Nana's eyes", her friend replied. "She reflected back to me that I was her wonderful granddaughter." This was the experience we were wishing for - to somehow help the teachers discover that wonderful mirroring from the inside out, from their own artwork, regardless of educational background, color of skin or stories of pain. In this uncertain creative moment, we are all equal. When working from the inside out, we are all marvelously unique. And this they would be able to pass this on to their students.

On the first day of our course, we show slides of our work at Hollandale and in schools in Nova Scotia to give the teachers a sense of what is possible. We emphasize the importance of working with elements of the culture and drawing volunteers from local artists and community groups. (We find community elders are usually eager for ways to pass on the things they know). We then follow this with a story using puppets. I tell the story through a narrator puppet, Sweet Orr, while volunteers enact it with sample puppets. This process seems to generate laughter and excitement about the possibilities for puppets and narrative.

Teachers are then instructed on creating hand puppets out of modeling materials and a simple glove puppet body. We also provide instructions for simple sock puppets to offer a faster method for creating characters. The teachers are also given instructions and materials for making little books that can be used as journals to record their thoughts throughout the week. We stress that this writing is for them and encourage the teachers to explore the things that make them curious.

By the third day, characters emerge as puppets are completed with finishing touches, including props. There are monsters, wizards, dragons, princesses, and witches and a whole array of animals. The entire room becomes animated with an amazing array of life forms as puppets come to life. The teachers are then asked to elicit stories about their characters through a few simple questions. Little handmade puppet books contain these stories.

On the final day, we divide the teachers into small groups and ask them to create group narratives. Our directives are very simple. We explain that for a story to be interesting, everyone has to have a part in it and the most interesting stories generally have a problem at the beginning that can get a little worse in the middle, but that needs to be solved by the end of the story for it to feel satisfying. With these few directions the groups create and perform wonderfully original stories.

One such story takes place in a time and land far away and is about several puppets traveling on separate paths - all looking for the Land of Acceptance. They meet at the crossroads of" decision and desire". While at the crossroads, they begin to talk to each other and discover problems, talents, dreams and misfortune that that are very similar. They share stories of pain and sorrow. They have all known rejection. Through this sharing, the puppets begin to see their similarities. They also realize that what they are seeing is through their own eyes and that there are many ways to view experiences. They learned that each path they traveled could be experienced in different ways, depending on how they chose to see them.

During each session we repeatedly ask the teachers about their feelings and ask them to take note of their excitement and feelings of flow. We ask if they noticed other things like concentration, silence, comfort, or discomfort in the room. We draw parallels to the classroom, describing our own experiences there. And we discuss how a teacher using puppet making and storytelling in the classroom will end up with a wealth of language arts stories and characters to work into the curriculum. We try to point out that the advantage here is that the imagery, stories, ideas, and characters are all from the person who is creating them and the learning is therefore inside out. Again, we ask the teachers to reflect on the positive feelings, the inclusive feelings that occur when everyone is curious about each other's puppet story. Curiosity encourages a deep listening and the puppets encourage curiosity.

We would end each day in a circle and offer time for feedback, questions and discussion about applications in the classroom, about the importance of tradition and culture in human development. Benefits of interactive work are also discussed. Most importantly, we try to help the teachers process their workshop experience and make sense of how the arts can awaken curiosity and wonder while building the capacity for self-education and self-worth. The teachers in our track discover that they are very creative and that the creative work gave them a sense of empowerment and positive reflections of themselves and their roots. We heard teachers say, "This training has energized me." "I feel I can now teach from the inside out." "I will create a safe environment for each student and allow for their individuality". "I will go back to teach my school how to make puppets in their classes". "I always thought I was artistically challenged. And now I know I am an Artist!"

You can see this collaborative, intercultural, inside out approach can be applied to a variety of settings. I'd like to close with some thoughts from one of the Bread and Puppet Theater folks, Jebary Jones, a school teacher/artist formerly of New York City. In an interview on CBC radio, Jebary talked about the value of what is inside all of us. As a puppeteer for Bread and Puppets, he discovered that the things we all love to do, the things we love the most are very ordinary things that come from within, like singing together, or making art together, or being a part of a large outdoor puppet performance. He said we all like to collaborate using these very ordinary things and because there is power here, in the collaboration, and in these simple activities with these simple objects. Jebary thinks everyone is secretly a puppeteer at heart. I don't know if we are all secretly puppeteers, but I do believe that the best of who we are is within us, all of us have these amazing, sparkly, colorful and wonderful ideas, images, and stories, and it is our job to bring that out.

Reference: Jones, J. (2003), Puppet Uprising. Toronto: CBC Radio (http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/).

The Alluvial Mine is the property of Heather Blakey and Miners who have generously shared their work. Please do not replicate any part of this mine without written permission.