What Happens When Artists Rule?

There's a school of thought that says when making and then selling something, people don't care about how or why you make it the way you do--they just want you to answer the question, What's in it for me? It's likely true for some people, probably a personality thing, but I am a values-oriented person and I can't imagine I'm alone in this. The how and the why matter immensely to me--it's why I buy organic and free range and free roaming food and support farms with humane practices. I pay more money for these items, and not just for their superior flavor and nutritional content. There is a kind of work in the world I believe in supporting, other values-oriented people I believe in sustaining.

Maybe this is why each time a new release draws near, I'm always compelled to pull the curtain back and let you see a glimpse of how we do things and why we do them that way. The curious among us can read on.

Almost everything we make has official and unofficial titles. For instance, something that might be called, say, The Gift of This Moment may have an unofficial or working title like, How to Feel Less Fucked Up and Alone. Maybe we'd sell more if we just stuck with those unofficial titles, I don't know, but I do know that they help us keep our eye on the ball during the making. To remember what we're up to and why. 

Similarly, the official tagline you'll see on a Jen Lee Productions banner right now reads, Hold the possibilities in your hands. And that is part of what we stand for, for sure. But an unofficial tagline has been keeping things clear behind the scenes in the making: Artists rule.

Like many things we create, I started down this path of independent media production because I was frustrated--frustrated with the ways we have undervalued wisdom and allowed systems to flourish that diminish creators and wisdom-keepers. I dreamed of a way to make things that would pay artists more than mere cents for the culmination of years of living and cultivating and researching and developing. A world where authors would get to name their own books and get to be a part of the process of making and shaping and designing their work, where they don't lose creative control to vetoes from the marketing department or a big-name bookstore that threatens not to carry their work unless they change the title.

We all know that what we really respond to are authentic voices, but I don't believe projects we run through such severe interference emerge with that authenticity intact.

What's the remedy? Letting artists rule. The work is the way the work should be, even if we're hours from going to press and we decide no, those interior photos really don't work in black and white. If they must be in color to retain their power and beauty, then in color they shall be.

Some content is well-suited for book form, and in those cases it becomes a book. But the concern and consideration that most drives me is transformation. I'm not asking, What will people buy? I'm asking, What way of interacting with this content will be the most transformative? The greatest shortcoming of books is that we are passive in our posture towards them. We generally hope that they will do something to us: entertain us, inspire us, give us the magic recipe we've been missing to have the life of our dreams.

But my journey has been more heavily influenced by a deeper kind of work--one in which I am interacting with the material and really reflecting and seeing things that I can no longer not see, things that change everything forever. It was while doing a writing exercise in The Artist's Way--not while reading it--that I had a realization that ultimately culminated in our move to New York City. It changed the direction of my work and our lives. A few months after arriving, someone was visiting me and saw the book near my bed. Oh, I read that book once, she said. I think I'll go back and 'do it' after I retire.

I almost had to sit down. What if I had just read that book, like it was any other? What if I had waited until retirement to take the time to listen to myself and hear what I most want? She had read a book and thought, That's nice. I had really interacted with it in a way that shifted my life's trajectory.

This story is not ever far from my mind when I'm writing home study courses: work that is active and invites you in to play with it, to experiment, to wrestle with the more difficult parts. The same ethos drives the home retreat kits. Yes, being in person, presence-with-presence is the most transformational way to interact with the material. But what if the logistics of that are out of reach? What's the next best thing?

When we began talking about Liz Lamoreux's new project, we quickly learned that the solitary nature of some of her practices for reflective living were not well-suited to the group format of a live retreat. At first I thought we would make a binder and CDs, as we had for Finding Your Voice and Telling Your Story. Our companions for the journey had powerful, rich experiences with them, and we knew how to make them--it would be a breeze.

But we weren't far into our discussions before I could hear that the binder would not be a good fit for this project. What we needed instead was a meditation journal, a separate poetry collection, and a field journal and photo album. We needed an audio CD with Liz's teaching and stories to walk our companions through the practices, and some audio meditations would be helpful, too. And that is how we build a project, piece by piece, form following function and not the other way around.

It's not inexpensive to make exquisite things in small batches, compared to what it costs to manufacture something you see for sale in Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. But in our case you know that your funds support the artists directly, that they receive more than mere cents from your purchase. Much of the work we offer is free, but every now and then we come up with a way that we can give you the best of what we have to offer in a form that allows you to give your support in exchange. We have not produced a resource yet that was not years in the making--years that we would not have had to pioneer these frontiers and then be your guides along the way if our financial circumstances did not and do not continue to allow it.

What happens when artists rule? Dreams come true. Next week (6.13.12) we release our latest project featuring the warmth and wisdom of artist, author and teacher Liz Lamoreux. We're in the dreams coming true business for artists and visionaries, and we hope you'll celebrate this one with us.

Spring 2012: New Work by Amazing Artists

Indie artists play at Pike Place Market in Seattle

It was this time last year when the dream of producing other artists' work began.

I was feeling moved and inspired by work I was seeing around me, but also noticing how traditional channels could alter it beyond recognition. You know that saying about trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? Clearly what we needed were some square holes.

At first I didn't take it or myself too seriously, the way we so often don't. Then I said it out loud. Mistakenly (or not) to a friend who takes me quite seriously. He said yes absolutely I should do it. I scoffed.

"Yeah, maybe someday when I have my own independent media company."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Jen," he said, "but I think you already do."

(Long pause. I feel in this beat that this is not one of those ideas that will let me off the hook.)

I consulted some trusted advisors to see what they thought. I really didn't want the job if it wasn't my assignment from the universe, so to speak. I didn't want to just run down a rabbit trail as a distraction from doing my own work (which often begs for distraction).

"It would be really good for you," they said. "It would be social, for one thing." They know I have a tendency toward isolation.

So I just said a quiet Yes one afternoon in the middle of my kitchen with the afternoon sun my only witness.

And that's how it began. In the weeks to come, I'll tell some of the stories about how the partners and projects I have since held in my hands and in my heart came to me and came to be. But for today, I'm so happy to begin the story and share that this spring I am delighted and honored to produce new work by amazing artists: Caren McLellan Gazley, Andrea Corona Jenkins, Jolie Guillebeau and Liz Lamoreux, all with the help of my partner-in-crime, Liz Kalloch.

(Here's a sneak peek at what's coming in April: now available for pre-order.)

A Story of Love and Friendship

Phyllis in her Colorado home this summer.

The story of my work is always, at its core, a story of love and friendship.

I met Phyllis Mathis when I was 22 years old. I had been married for less than a year, and out of college even less than that. I still remember every detail of our meeting--the metal folding chairs we shook hands across, that curious banter you do with strangers, the way she stood with shoulders back, head high, her face radiating warmth and welcome. It's as if some part of my memory-making mind woke up and said, Pay attention. This moment is important.

Not long afterward I attended a retreat Phyllis led and as she spoke one morning I was overcome by this strong sense of kindredness which I wish I could say happens to me more often than the rare times it actually does. I thought, Something about the way her mind works and the way my mind works feels the same. Our journeys have been entwined ever since.

Years later, when the first thread gave the first tug that began the unraveling of my life as I then knew it, Phyllis was the first person I called. She sat across from me and watched in real time as all the pieces I had so carefully crafted and constructed fell to the floor and shattered.

She later said it was one of the most beautiful things she's ever seen.

There is not a secret in me that she has not held. Not a single place she has been unwilling to journey with me, no matter how dark or embarrased or unfit for public consumption I become before it's all over. Her friendship has been a safety net that has caught me and reassured me and given me courage time and time and time again.

Cover photography and design by Liz Kalloch, lizkallochdesigns.comThis week we're sending our collaborative project into production, and today as we do the finishing touches, I'm so present to the depth and richness of the wisdom and stories we've mined in over a decade of friendship, the ways we've helped one another weave in and understand even the stories which began long before. It's the most epic piece of work I've undertaken yet, and I am just humbled beyond belief to be able to share it with you soon.

I'm a big bundle of feelings in the meantime: excited, a little nervous, very tender, but most of all deeply grateful for this woman and this friendship which have shaped and comforted and guided me all along the way.

The Iconic Self (available now for pre-order) releases January 24, 2012.

 

Collaboration Closeup: Liz Kalloch

Top of the Rock by Liz Kalloch, from "Telling Your Story" (also current website banner)

If I were really telling the truth about this story, I would tell you how alone I felt back then. How I'd started thinking that the kind of partnerships I dreamed of were just that--pipe dreams. I would tell you that I did the Finding Your Voice course largely on my own, even though I can't stand working that way, because it was getting me through a hard winter. And it took half a dozen friends to hold me together.

Liz draws me for "Telling Your Story"

I thought about people who felt soothing to my soul, and Liz Kalloch was one of the first people to come to mind. I was trying to figure out a way to see her and spend more time with her, (we met at Squam and she lives on the other coast) and she said, "It would be really fun to create a project together".

It was like when you've had a really bad fall on the sidewalk, and you're sitting there staring at your bloody knees, too sore and dazed to try standing, and someone stops and reaches out her hand.

It was just like that.

I remember talking to Jen Gray back then, telling her how I received Liz like a gift from the gods. She said, "Liz Kalloch is an earth angel," and I said, "Oh my god, YES. That is EXACTLY what she is."

Plenty of people are talented, but not everyone is kind. Plenty of people can do the work, but not everyone can do the work in love.

And for me, the kindness and love are everything.

I wanted Telling Your Story to have as much visual beauty packed into it as possible, so we came up with this idea for Liz to do line art based on the photographs that were going into the project. The simplicity of her pieces, along with the subtle repetition, really infused the whole curriculum with visual interest without making it feel too busy. We even added her work to the "blank" pages in the back that can be inserted throughout the 3-ring binder wherever they are needed. She was my design consultant for the project as I put together the layout, working the cover with me and doing the entirety of the Telling Your Story Sound Studio design this fall.

The other idea we cooked up all those many many months ago was a new print edition of The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls manual I'd written and taught from last fall. It would feature Liz's original line art drawings, my full-color photos and some new writing. The final result is so exquisite to hold in your hands that people literally go speechless for a moment when I hand it to them.

 Front Cover: The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls

A peek inside of "The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls: A Manual", line art and design by Liz Kalloch

 

Back cover: The Care and Keeping of Creative SoulBy now we have so many good things cooking, I can hardly stand it. Liz is my vision catcher, my collaborator, my magic-maker and dear friend who talks me down from the tree. I couldn't be more honored to be on this journey with her, hand-in-hand, or more thrilled to share her and her work with you.

 

 

Liz Kalloch has been dancing to her own beat from an early age, when she thought the Brownie badges were ugly and made her own. (So clever, and yet so unappreciated by her troop leaders.) Her creativity bursts forth through more mediums than we can name here, but her greatest work is what she creates out of love, friendship, beauty and an adventurous heart.

Collaboration Closeup: Ophira Eisenberg and Peter Aguero

Peter and Ophira at a show at Belleville in Brooklyn

When putting together the Telling Your Story course, I wanted to add interviews with some of my friends--people who were not only amazing storytellers themselves, but who also had experience teaching storytelling. I loved the idea of working with Peter and Ophira, and giving us a chance hear from someone from a comedy background and someone from an improv background, to explore how our varied experiences impact the way we approach the art and craft of this medium.

Also, I will own up to some purely selfish motivations: there were some conversations I was longing to have, conversations that don't happen standing in line for a show or hanging out in a crowded bar afterward. There were questions I wanted to ask these two that really require a quiet room, the chance to sit face to face, cozy into your chair and really be listened to.

Ophira at Argot Studios

Ophira Eisenberg is a celebrated comic who has appeared on Comedy Central and was named a "Top Ten Comic" by New York Magazine. I've always been drawn to Ophira because she's so damn real. So much of the time when she makes me laugh, it's this laughter of surprise because she has said something so honest, and so previously unrecognized or unnamed that I'm like, "Oh my god it's so TRUE!" She has this astute observation and this willingness to own up to all kinds of things that simultaneously inspires me and makes me feel relief at not being "the only one".

A lot of people can rock a persona or a character on stage, but it takes something else entirely to stand in front of a crowd and a microphone, under a spotlight and just be true. Ophira is the real deal, all the way, and it's no surprise that she is so beloved in our community. I love that her Sound Studio interview gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how she navigates vulnerability and how she prepares stories with high emotional content.

Aguero at The BTKristmas Show, 2010

Whenever I think about the way that love makes us brave, I think about The BTK Band. The improvisational storytelling rock band, led by Peter Aguero, is my favorite to stand on stage with when I'm telling the stories that are hard to tell. They're the ultimate safety net--I know I won't lose their affection, even if I swing out wide and fall, and there is literally no where I can go that they won't go with me. I wanted TYS participants to feel that same safety, that same sense of bold permission, and having Peter collaborate on the project was the perfect way to create that.

Peter really embodies this mix of badassery and tenderness that gives me hope for my own budding inner baddass. In his sound studio interview, he gives participants the full range, addressing fears with compassionate, bold advice. He shares about the stories that have changed him forever and what gets lost when we hold back.

We recorded the Sound Studio first, in December 2010, and as I designed and finished the interactive curriculum I did my best to infuse the whole project with the spirit and sensibilities of Peter and Ophira, just as much as my own. The result is that this project is more urban and more rock and roll than anything I've previously produced. It's really an hommage to the NYC storytelling community, featuring photos of some of our favorite venues and quotes and wisdom from the friends and mentors that have taught me everything I know about the art and craft of storytelling.

There is no greater gift than working in the company of friends, and creating the Telling Your Story course with Peter and Ophira was nothing short of a dream come true.

You can find Ophira's comedy album, As Is, on iTunes. Her memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, will be available through Perseus Books in Spring of 2012.

The BTK Band can be found causing trouble the second Monday of every month, Under St. Mark's Theater. Peter and I will be together again for BARE on December 29th.

 

Collaboration Closeup: Bella Cirovic

Photos by Bella Cirovic, shetoldstories.com

 

The photography of Bella Cirovic is all about telling stories, bearing witness, and seeing deeply. This is exactly why, when it was time to do my short film about Telling Your Story, I knew her images were a perfect fit.

It's also why I asked Bella to come to Brooklyn to do a photo shoot with me. A lot has shifted for me internally this fall, and I wanted some images that would bear witness to this "new skin".

It takes talent and presence to see people--to really see them as they are, right now--but it takes even more to see who they are becoming. Working with Bella was just like that. She captured beyond what is--she got what is becoming in real time and what is yet to come.

(I'll tell you the story of this shirt another time.)

Working with Bella is a deep joy--I'm so thankful for the way she sees me. More photos from our shoot are posted in the Photo Gallery (which lives under the "About Jen" link in the top menu bar).


The hostess of 52photosproject.com and the talent behind She Told Stories, Bella Cirovic is a storyteller and seer with a camera. Look for Bella in an upcoming issue of Artful Blogging, and follow her on Twitter.