What this is all about

Based on the WMRA show "The Spark", hosted by Martha Woodroof, this project looks at the creative passions of college students in the Shenandoah Valley area.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Margaret Clary, the Jewelry Maker

           Unlike most of the students I interview for this blog, I have known Margaret Clary for several years. We met as freshmen, when we were both new to James Madison and unsure about our majors. She graduated this past May with a degree in Art and a concentration in Metals and Jewelry. When she sat down to speak with me she wore a ring that she had made in one of her classes. She doesn't think it is anything special, but I disagree. The ring is simple, a silver band set with a large blue stone, and I was so impressed with it that I couldn't wait to see a piece that she was really proud of.
Margaret's Bronze cast bracelet
           “I prefer bracelets,” she says. “I hate wearing them, but love making them. I just made a piece that turned out really well. I made it in wax first, then cast it in bronze and set a stone in the middle. It took about thirty hours, which is usually the norm.”
           With a single piece taking thirty hours, Margaret is understandably busy. Her fascination with art began her freshman year in high school when she took a class with her now favorite teacher, Diego Sanchez. Although it was an art class, he also taught them art history and style, which really helped to make the whole process more interesting for her. When Margaret got to college she was interested in graphic design, but because of difficulties with credit hours she switched to metals and jewelry, and has loved it ever since.
A handmade wire bracelet with metal flowers
           “My style is very nature-esque, I suppose. Organic. I do a lot of vine work, and I love anything to do with flowers. I wish I had a green thumb, but instead I bring it out in my metal work. Nature inspires me, and I love going on walks and seeing different plants and trees.”
           With jewelry making, Margaret's favorite part is the portability of her work. It is impractical to carry around a sculpture or a painting to show everyone, but with jewelry she gets to wear her pieces and share them. Getting recognition for hard work is incredibly satisfying, especially considering how much time and effort go into a single piece. Oftentimes, she says, people forget how much work and dedication goes into art.
           “It’s very frustrating,” Margaret says. “A lot of people make fun of me for being an art major, since I usually don't have regular exams and whatnot. I don't think some people realize how much time I put into things, and how much art means to me and other people. I've pulled many all-nighters, and with art you can keep working and not ever really finish.”
           Several of the students I have interviewed have said similar things, that their artistic efforts are not always appreciated or taken seriously. But they all say that their art has changed them.
           “Metals have definitely pushed my limits,” she says. “In my first class we had to use torches, and I was terrified of fire! I even burned my hair. I was pushed to do things I thought I couldn't do.”
Metal flower pendant
           Now that Margaret has graduated from JMU, she hopes to return to graphic design. Although she would love to get more experience with metal working, and perhaps intern with a jewelry designer, her real passion is for graphic design. She wants to go into advertising, hopefully staying around Richmond, where she has lived most of her life. Whatever medium she chooses, being an artist has made an impression on her life.
          “Art has made me notice the beautiful things around me,” Margaret says. “I take my time and look around and enjoy how beautiful it all is. I think art does that for a lot of people. It makes you look for the good in everything. I know I do.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

Diane Livick, the Potter

            Diane Livick is not the usual college student. She attended James Madison University from 1975 to 1978 and received a degree in Art Education. She has worked as a children's behaviorist, served in the military, and after her children were grown she became a nurse. Now, years after she received her art degree, she is returning to her roots.
           “Thirty-some years later, and I really missed clay,” Diane says. “It's a medium that is so versatile. You can make it look soft, make it look hard like metal. If you enjoy working with it, and you haven't in a while, it is so satisfying to go back.”
           Diane came to Blue Ridge Community College last year to take classes in sculpture and ceramics. She has her own kiln and wheel at home now, so she is able to work on her own time. Working outside the classroom allows her a lot of freedom, where she is the only judge.
           Diane brought in several bowls she had thrown recently as a part of a collection inspired by radio telescopes she saw last summer at the Space Race Rumpus. It was the first annual bike ride and festival in Green Bank, West Virginia, to raise money for a wellness center. It is hosted by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, with the second annual race coming up next week.
           “I decided I needed to do something visually with it,” Diane says. “I've got the four bowls here, and I'm made nine or ten, and I will probably get to twenty. First I throw them and work on developing a shape I like, then I'm going to work on color patterns. I keep notes on different glazes I've done, and then I decide if I want to do water colors, free-form, a constellation or a dark sky...”
           One piece that caught my eye is a bowl colored with a deep blue glaze. It is speckled with textured dots of white and streaks of gold, and instantly reminded me of Van Gogh's Starry Night. Even with all of the years between then, both artists found inspiration in the night sky.
"European Mount, Unknown Species",
a Raku piece
           Although this collection is made of thrown pieces, throwing pots is not Diane's “thing”. She prefers hand-building and sculptural works, finding her inspiration from nature and storytelling. She especially loves myths and creation stories, and making them visual.
           “We need those stories – we need stories that have been told again and again. Until they're worn smooth as stones. That seems to be missing now, too. I think we move too fast in our society and I hope that parents are telling stories to their kids, because there need to be good stories to give to kids.”
            One of Diane's goals while taking classes at Blue Ridge has been to create a quantity of quality pieces for entry into a juried show. She had several pieces in shows when she was working on her undergraduate degree, including her favorite piece, “The Mountain Jar.”
           “It shows a cabin up on the mountain with a stream and the clouds. That is because I always wanted to live in a cabin,” Diane says. “Self-fulfilling prophecy, I suppose. I forget what the assignment was, but we were well invested in it. I've guarded that piece to be sure it won’t get broken. It’s already made it thirty-some years.”
"Hillis Plot Bowl II"
           The pieces Diane creates don't always follow her original plan. Somewhere along in the process an idea sometimes doesn't fit. Whether it is a quick piece that only takes a few minutes to throw or a more complex piece that takes weeks to form, there is no way to be sure what the final outcome will be.
          Ceramics is not the only art form that Diane enjoys. She does photography, painting, and is a musician. She’s recently returned to two dimensional art, where her style begins to really stand out. In ceramics she has an underlying theme to her pieces rather than a style, but with her paintings she tends to be illustrative. She has been working on a series called Sundown Serenade, in hopes of illustrating a children's book. With scenes of fireflies playing banjos and the three tenor frogs, her paintings spring out from the canvas out onto the frames
Diane, in red, firing a Raku piece at BRCC
           Diane is happiest when she’s creating. “Because I'm a nurse, I'm gonna analyze myself a little bit,” she says with a smile. “There's a motor pleasure-driven rewards circuit that comes from making something, from actually doing something. We're genetically wired to have pleasure when we do this for our own survival. I think a lot of society has lost this.”
           Last summer she and her son, who is a tattoo artist, were a part of a show in Dayton, hosted by a local artist. Seeing so many young artists driven to share their art inspired Diane to keep on with her own work and be a part of this community. This past Memorial Day weekend Diane showed her work at Staunton Art in the Park, and some of her pieces were recently shown in the Blue Ridge Literary and Arts Magazine.
           “Creative people tend to see things a little differently, and approach the world a little differently,” Diane says of her fellow artists in Dayton. “The collection of artists were all unique, all pushing boundaries. It really inspired me to want to be around people who see things a little differently.”
           It is never too late to pursue what you love, as Diane has proven. Even after she raised her children and worked for years as a nurse, she returned to her pottery roots, and is determined to share her creations with the world. She has never stopped learning, and I am determined to follow her lead.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Lisa Dragani, the Painter

       Lisa Dragani comes from a family of artists. Her mother and grandfather were both painters, and art has been an important part of her life since she was a child.
         “When I was really little, my mom would always encourage me to go outside,” Lisa says. “She would get big pieces of paper and acrylic paint and have me go out in the yard and paint. I loved it, and she loved it because it got me out of the house.”
         In high school Lisa took classes in graphic design. She originally planned to focus on that when she came to James Madison University four years ago, but she soon realized her real passion was for painting.
        “It's a messy thing, but it can be clean, and it's a form you can play with a lot. It's just the medium I'm most comfortable in.”
         When it comes to painting, Lisa has tried a little bit of everything. For a few summers she painted pet portraits, getting several commissions from local pet lovers who wanted to immortalize Rover. When she paints for herself she enjoys doing still life's and landscapes. She is inspired by abstract and surrealist artists, such as Salvador Dali, although she herself isn't a big abstract painter. At JMU she had the opportunity to try other art mediums, such as metal and jewelry working, but nothing appealed to her the way painting has.
Lisa and her piece at the JMU Undergrad
Art Show
        Lisa's favorite piece got into the JMU Undergraduate Show this past spring, a juried collection that allows students to showcase their work. For this particular piece she put a bit of a twist on the traditional canvas.
        “I went to the woodshop and had the teacher help me make a 3D base,” Lisa says. “Kind of like a skate ramp, so the center is closest to the wall, giving it a kind of panoramic feel. I did like a weird drip oil painting of Richmond, with the reflection of Richmond on the James River.”
        This painting was one of the few Lisa has been really satisfied with. Pieces can take weeks, if not months, before they are finished, and even then there have been pieces that Lisa has considered painting over and starting again. But it is when she finishes a painting, and is really satisfied with it, that Lisa is happiest.
        But painting doesn't always end with a perfect finish. Everything from disliking a still life model to working on a tight budget can present an obstacle for art.
         “Honestly, the hardest part for me is patience,” Lisa confesses. “I consider myself a very patient person, but I've been working a lot with oils and it takes a long time to dry. If you do something you don't like you just have to sit there and take it. You have to realize it's going to be on there for a while and you have to come back in a few hours to fix it. Sometimes you're sitting there hating a mistake and time goes by and you find yourself liking what you had hated, even finding things you love about it.”
         Lisa has a variety of plans now that she has graduated from JMU. She got a job working at a winery, hosting wine tastings part time, which will give her time to continue painting and look for the kind of work she really wants. Pet portraits were fun, but she doesn't want that to be the only kind of painting she does. Websites such as Etsy allow artists to sell their work independently, and Lisa plans to create an account to share her pieces.
         Lisa's big dream would be to someday open up a coffee shop and bakery, where she can showcase her own art as well as the work of local artists. Baking is another one of her passions, and she hopes to go to culinary school this fall and take some classes. Coffee, muffins, and beautiful art? You can expect to find me writing in the corner with a big cup of coffee. Until then, Lisa will continue with her painting, and she can only get better.
One of Lisa's paintings that would be
perfect for her coffee shop.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

To all of my readers...

          This past weekend James Madison University's Class of 2013 crossed the stage at graduation. Along with my classmates, I have received a degree from this incredible university, and have my sights set on new horizons. But I will still be blogging for all you readers out there.
          The past two weeks have been hectic, and I will be spending the next week and half on a trip, but I will return to blogging as soon as I am back in the area. You can look forward to interviews with two wonderful JMU art students, a very talented ceramic student from Blue Ridge, and a special double interview with two singers from Washington and Lee. So please be patient with a stressed recent graduate in need of some tropical sun, and stay tuned!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

James Souder, the Photographer

          Among his group of friends, James Souder is the one who always has a camera. He uses photography to capture moments, but even without a camera he says that being a photographer has changed the way he sees the world.
          “My friends like that about me,” he jokes. “I like to capture interactions between people, but I think the act of just noticing lets me appreciate what's happening, and see more.”
          James is a senior Environmental and Social Sustainability major at Eastern Mennonite University. He used to be a Photography major, but switched it to a minor after realizing how much he enjoyed the variety of classes offered in his new major. Even though photography may not take center stage on his diploma, it remains a huge part of his life.
          James was in high school when he picked up a camera lying around his family’s house and started taking photos. He began taking classes and entering his work in competitions, winning several awards in high school. I asked him about the first photograph that really stuck out in his memory, and James smiled as he recalled it.
          “The first photo I am really proud of,” he muses. “There was a bird's nest I saw, and I just reached up the camera and snapped a photo. The baby birds thought I was their mother, and there were a couple of blue eggs, and it was just really framed well.”
One of James's photos from an early morning plane ride
over the Shenandoah Valley
          At EMU he continued to take classes in photography, but explored some of his other interests as well. His very extensive interests. James has four minors: Photography, Biology, Economics, and International Development. Along with a heavily loaded class schedule, he is also part of the Earth Keepers club, Sustainable Food Initiative Club, is senior class co-president, and plays saxophone in a jazz band. I have absolutely no idea how he managed to come and speak with me, let alone have the time to work on his photography. When we spoke he was preparing for his first job the following day as a wedding photographer. He had done engagement photos, and had been asked to do weddings, but this is the first time he's been confident that he has the ability (and the equipment) to take on such a responsibility.
          James spent one summer working for the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU, where he was a community assistant. He was not hired as the photographer, but he was one anyway, taking the class photos and taking pictures of the various events. No matter what he ends up doing, it seems that James always find time for photography. He interned with an urban farm in Philadelphia last summer, where he worked on social media and was the main photographer.
          The term “urban farm” caught my ear, and James was kind enough to explain it to me.
          “It was a really cool internship,” he says. “They took a vacant lot in the city, a place where an old warehouse had burned down. They cleared it out, brought in topsoil, and were able to have a really productive garden. It involved community members in the process of planting, and they now have a farm
At the urban farm in Philadelphia
stand right there on site. Their mission is to take places that were unattractive or provided places for crime, and make a beautiful places for people to gather and use the land productively. They’ve definitely noticed a huge improvement in the community, just the way people
interact and respect their neighborhood.”
          James is a senior, so his time at EMU is almost up, but he has big plans for the future. For the next year he will be in Pittsburgh, as an intern in a program called PULSE (Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience). It is a way to transition from college to jobs, as he and several other recent graduates will live in a house together and be able to explore the city. Although his internship will be environmentally focused, James hopes to be able to use photography in it.
          James has already begun looking past the PULSE internship, and planning beyond it. He is in the process of applying for the Peace Corps, to see more of the world and apply his skills in places that might need him. Graduate school is another option. He hasn't been planning to make photography the focus of his career, but his studies have affected the way he approaches photography, as well as his view of the world.
          “The process is really important to me-- how you go about gaining the image. Like if you’re in someone's face, rather than like getting to know the person and appreciating them as more than an object to be photographed. Just respecting what is around you. . . it has helped me appreciate things.”
           James is on a mission. He is truly passionate about the environment and helping those around him, and is going on to great things. He may not make the camera the focus of his career, but he will keep it in hand to document his adventures.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Eric Cecchett, the Critic

            If you happen to be listening to the radio on a Sunday afternoon and are looking for something new, I would have to recommend turning the dial to WXJM 88.7. There are a number of music shows that their website lists as “Freeform”, but if you tune in between two and four you will find yourself part of the audience of the “Nate and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”
Eric and Nate at the WXJM radio station
            Eric Cecchett, a Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communications major at JMU, came in to speak with me about his show and endeavors. He transferred to from Northern Virginia Community College last fall, and immediately started working on his radio show.
            “I had a bunch of friends that have radio shows at their respective colleges,” Eric says. “It was something I wanted to do before coming to a university. I very much enjoy music, and it holds a lot of significance for me. It is a very personal experience but I also enjoy externalizing that and sharing with people.”
            Eric and Nate each create an hour long playlist every week for their show, playing “Indie” music and working to spotlight lesser known bands. They have similar tastes and occasionally find they selected the same songs for their playlists, although according to Eric, Nate tends to enjoy some of the more “Folky” sounding music. They started their show last semester, originally with the 12-2am Saturday night time slot. With their new Sunday afternoon slot they presumably have a much larger audience, although Eric does miss being able to loudly blast their music in an empty studio.
            Eric has played guitar for a few years, but he does not play often or create his own music. His passion is in existing art, not in producing his own. Whether it be music, films, or writing, he is a fan of popular culture in all of its outlets.
            “I love all kinds of culture,” he says. “I just have trouble with creation.”
            His creative idol is director Paul Thomas Anderson, the mind behind films such as Punk Drunk Love and There will be Blood. Although Eric doubts his own creative abilities, saying “I don't think I have the capacity to do what he does,” he would love to work with, and be a part of, the movie industry.
In DC this past winter
            Eric was drawn to the WRTC major because of his love of writing. It came naturally to him in high school so he gravitated toward it. As he is a perfectionist and compares his own writing to other's work, he’s never quite satisfied with his work. This past semester in particular he has been working on gaining more confidence, writing reviews for some of the movies and music he enjoys. He even created a blog titled “Building Nothing Out of Something” where he can share some of his writing.
            “I try to immerse myself in critique and let people read,” Eric says. “That's why I put it out there, so I can get used to that exposure. Right now I'm going easy on myself, writing reviews on things I really like, which I think is a lot easier than reviewing something you don't like or are indifferent about.”
            Eric's ideal job would be to be a film critic, to spend his days writing and watching movies. He admires the confidence of writers who are able to put something as personal as their own work out in the open and share it with the world.
            “It bewilders me that people can do that,” he says. “They write a piece and decide that it is good enough for them, and so good enough to be read by millions of people.”
            The best way to get better at writing, and to know that it is good enough for the millions who might read it, is to write. With his busy schedule balancing classes and the radio show there is not always time to write, but Eric is trying to make time. He tries not to think of it as work, worried that may take some of the enjoyment out of it, and hopefully someday he will be able to do it full time. He posts his reviews at EricCheck.blogspot.com, and although he does not post often he is trying to change that. The best way for him to have faith in his work is to share it with the world, and to keep writing.

           Stay tuned next week for my interview with Eastern Mennonite University's James Souder.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tara Bonanno, the Dancer

Tara Bonanno started dancing in fourth grade. She began with tap dancing, and soon added jazz and modern ballet, devoting her free time to movement. It wasn’t until high school that she became a serious dancer, and by then she was hooked. Dance remains her passion as she moves on through college, and she hopes to continue it after graduation.
Tara is a junior at the University of Virginia. She is a Commerce major, a unique program at UVA that incorporates all aspects of business. With her dance minor, Tara has a busy schedule, but she was able to take some time to have a conversation with me about why she loves it so much.
“I wanted to be able to go to a school where I would be able to take dance classes,” Tara says. “I didn’t plan on minor-ing until I got to UVA when I realized how important it was to me, and how much I missed dancing around the clock.”
The program is relatively new, and only offers a minor, but it has a range of lecture and studio courses that help to create a well-rounded dancer. Half of the program is technique, and half is creating an intelligent dancer – one who can critique and understand dance and its history.
“I was really attracted to the formal program since it is a smaller group of students – you draw those who were really committed and excited about dance. You don’t get lost in the group as another faceless student or dancer. And a lot of these dancers created their own work, which, when I was a freshman, was something really daunting but exciting to me.”
Tara has a taste of many styles of dance, everything from tap to West African, but her favorite is modern. To her, it has the most freedom with creating movement, and pulls from a variety of techniques. It is not the most difficult style for her (ballet holds that title), but this style does demands a great level of skill and ability that can create a versatile dancer.
With a background in martial arts (she did Tae Kwon Do for eight years), Tara really enjoys exciting dances that incorporate strong and powerful movement. This was an aspects of various West African styles that she particularly liked. Its visceral quality captured her attention, and although she has only done a small amount through master classes, this is one style that she would love to continue.
The dance program has two formal performances a year, a Fall and Spring Concert. It is choreographed by faculty as well as students, and Tara is creating a piece for the upcoming concert. Last semester she choreographed her first dance, choosing to do a modern piece that was light and upbeat.
Backstage with her dancers from the 2012 Fall Concert
“My choreography comes from an emotional state of being that is important to me. It directly translates to movement. My last piece was inspired from a billboard that I pass on the way to work... its old and someone painted “Gratitude” on it in huge orange letters. It was a good reminder to me to be thankful, and fueled a lot of movement.”
This semester she draws her inspiration from art. Tara is working with several UVA art students and using their work to inspire her dancers. She brings different pieces to all of the practices and has her dancers improvise based on the art work. Every night that they dance they create something new.
“It is hard to pinpoint why I dance,” Tara said near the end of our conversation. “In class, or in performance, you can see something in another person when they are completely invested in dance. You can see the tiny moments that you feel in yourself... you tap into this subconscious burst of movement... Its something I haven’t been able to find in any other sort of art form or activity.”
In one of my own classes my professor jokes that students can read an excerpt from their essay or perform an interpretive dance. So far none of us have taken up the dance offer, but I wonder if Tara would if she were in the class. There are some feelings that are difficult to convey through words, but there can be so much power in movement that at times it may be able to speak for us.
“Communicating through body language... it connects your intellect with your body and your soul,” Tara says. “It has become very relevant to how I see things and how I learn.”
Tara will be performing in the Spring Dance Concert on April 11th and 12th at 8pm, and April 13th at 2pm and 8pm, in the Helms Theatre at UVA. She says it is unlikely she will dance professionally after graduation, but for now, the stage is hers.

           Next week I will be posting my conversation with Eric Cecchett, a junior at James Madison University.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Max Chapnick, Physicist and Poet

          I drove down to Lexington a few weeks ago to meet with Max Chapnick at Washington and Lee University. He is from White Plains, New York, so he’s probably used to our recent snowy weather. We sat down in the WLUR recording studio and talked about poetry.
In Tel Aviv, Israel
           Max started out at W&L as a Physics major, but quickly added on English as a double major. “I felt like I didn’t have enough literature in my life,” he says, “so I took an English class and I loved it.”
          Max then tacked on a creative writing minor and started taking some poetry courses, which is how he met Leslie Wheeler, a professor at W&L. She was working for Shenandoah, an online literary magazine run by the University, to create a special feature on New Zealand demonstrating the huge variety of poetry from the country. Over 100 poets submitted samples of their work. Max and another student, Drew Martin, were picked to help select twenty-five for publication. For some this was their first time being published.
            “Working on this project was a lot of responsibility and pressure, like nothing I’d experienced before,” Max says. “We met twice a week, like a class, and sometimes it was just like we would hang out and discuss poetry.”
           So much time reading poetry inspired Max to work on his own portfolio. He prefers formal poetry styles and, although it would take a tremendous amount of work, he aspires to write a verse play.
           “For me, poetry is a very mechanical thing. Even if there’s no line or meter there is a certain sense of craft, and it’s the same with physics. You’re trying to describe the universe, and that’s a less emotional thing, but in the end it is emotional in that you’re on this quest to discover what the universe is, and using the power of your intellect to do it. So that inspires me – the combination of human element and the intellectual element.”
In the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity house
           His love of physics inspires much of his work. It is a unique combination, this mixture of science and the arts, but he is not the first to try and unite the two. The book Are Angels Ok?: The Parallel Universe of New Zealand Writers and Scientists, edited by Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan, blends science with philosophy and literature.
           “It was a really cool book,” Max says. “It was all of these writers writing about physics, so it was my two passions, especially the poetry. That sort of inspired me to write a few poems about physics.”
           When I spoke with Max he was waiting to hear back on his Fulbright proposal. He plans to go to New Zealand and work on a master’s in Creative Writing at the Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Just this past week he received the news. Max will be spending the 2013-2014 academic year in New Zealand, to continue combining his love of poetry with his passion for science. He was kind enough to share one of his poems with us, titled “Quantum Physics Love Song.”

Quantum Physics Love Song

We carry our shells with us as we stroll
along the sand. Generally, Hermitians
are tricky to recognize. I ponder

whether the wind is a normalized distribution,
you whether I am cold. We exist both discretely and
together. The approaching tide releases

wave packets, sloshing randomly, which you meet
with evaluative sighs. Let us commute
into the sea of possibilities, each

of us an uncertain operator. But shhh,
boundaries require maneuvering. Truth,
the coarsest measurement, might collapse our shells.

So do not tell me where you stand and I
will not tell you how fast I’m going.

           Until then, Max is enjoying what is left of his time at W&L. He has a lot to do before graduation this spring. A play he wrote for one of his classes was picked up by a student acting group. It will be performed May 10th, 11th, and 12th at the Lenfest Center at W&L, directed by senior theater major Mary Rodriguez. His work with the Shenandoah may be done, but he has only just begun writing his own poetry.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jessica Romero, the Volunteer

Looking out over Haiti

Mon Lopital sits on top of a mountain in Haiti. It is a tiny village of about three thousand people, nearly five and a half hours from the nearest large town. The villagers used to make the trek up and down the mountain on foot in order to get food and supplies. But now, thanks to the work and dedication of people like Jessica Romero, they have a general store of their own. And she hopes to give them so much more.
A sophomore at Blue Ridge Community College, Jessica is a member of Enactus, an international community of students who see entrepreneurial action as a way to change lives. Enactus focuses on environmental, social, or economic projects to increase people’s quality of life. The Blue Ridge branch has programs focused on everything from the empowerment of women to tutoring the mentally disabled. When Jessica came in to speak with me at the WMRA recording studio, her shirt had a small logo with the words Enactus stitched beneath it. Clearly, she is proud to be a part of this organization.
Jessica was born in New York and moved to Harrisonburg 8 years ago. When she was a child she wanted to be a veterinarian or a teacher. She has only been a member of Enactus for two years, but it helped to shape her goals for the future. Her new dream is to help people.
“For me, once I started looking into Enactus I was like ‘I have to be a part of this’. This is just too awesome to let it pass by.”
The Enactus team
Jessica and four other students to went to Haiti this past January to work on a new project. Last June they built a general store for Mon Lopital, but this time their mission was to provide something simple, yet essential: Light.
“Ninety percent of Haitians have no electricity,” Jessica said. “They use kerosene lamps, which are really expensive. Instead we figure we could use solar powered lamps.”
It is called the D-Light Initiative. “We raised money for 600 LED lights, and met with a Haiti committee of twelve people, who chose the seven women most in need. Each woman is given a box of lights to sell, all profits to them, in order put money aside to re-invest in more lights.”
These lights do more than just light up their homes. By giving these women lamps it gives them a job, and the opportunity to improve their lives. The lights provide sustainability, so that the village could thrive on its own.
“Hand-ups,” Jessica calls it. “Not hand-outs.”
Jessica was drawn to Haiti because of its potential. There is a desperate need for change, but lack of infrastructure and support make this difficult. She and the other Blue Ridge students had the resources and ability to help, and all they needed was passion.
Jessica with one of the children from Mon Lopital
“To see that light hanging there and lighting up the home, with the kids studying, the mom cooking or sewing, it speaks for itself,” she says. “I’m passionate about doing something bigger than myself, and this is way bigger than me. I never experienced a feeling like this.”
Of course there are always challenges. Even with all their work and research, there are always more areas of need.
“It’s important to see opportunity where others see obstacles,” she says with a smile. “I’m one person and I want to do all these things, but there’s so much to do, so many people to help, so many things to change.”
It can be discouraging, but Jessica keeps faith. And it is her faith that partly drives her.
“God, he’s doing mission work every day. I’m a believer and I feel like we are called to help. The least I can do for Him is follow His footsteps. He’s given us love and life, and I want to carry that on.”
Jessica hopes to work for the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, after graduation. She would like work in Latin America, where she speaks the language and knows the culture, or back in Haiti, a place that has become dear to her. But she also hopes to challenge herself and eventually move on to other parts of the world. Jessica aspires to speak at least five or six languages, and continue with her work of helping those around her.
“Maybe I can learn Swahili and go to Africa!”
Until then, her heart is with the people of Mon Lopital. Her dream would be to provide the children with a school well-stocked with supplies and with teachers that are paid a proper salary. It would take a lot of work, and a lot of resources. But Jessica already has the passion, so she’s already one step closer to achieving her goals.
Children of Mon Lopital
My next interview is with Washington and Lee's Max Chapnick, to be posted next week.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Paulo Dorado, the Guitarist

         When I brought Paulo Dorado to the radio station to record our conversation, he said he wasn’t nervous. He seemed more comfortable with the situation than I was, being familiar with the equipment from having spent time in a recording studio. I could tell his hands were itching to play around with the dials on the soundboard and explore the computer program. Paulo may be a science geek, but his passion is for music, and once I got him talking our conversation flowed so naturally you’d think he was interviewed all the time.
Music had been a part of his family before Paulo was even born. His father was a musician, and used to tell Paulo stories about how he had been born into a family of musicians.
“I thought that was B.S for like the first half of my life,” he said with a laugh.
But when Paulo was thirteen, his family moved to Northern Virginia from the Philippines, and his older brother bought a guitar. Like most siblings, he refused to share with Paulo, so Paulo had to get one for himself. He practiced every day for four hours at a time, teaching himself to play and even writing his own songs.
“It was like, I’m living up to something, a goal.” With a father who was a professional musician, Paulo felt motivated to become a skilled musician himself. But that was not the only factor that drove him.
Paulo spoke almost no English when he moved to the United States. He had to overcome not only culture shock, but a massive language barrier as well.
“I was from the, I guess “ghetto” part of the Philippines. And, you know the way we solve problems is we tussle it out... First day, someone threw my lunch tray away. And I was like dude... I couldn’t say anything. I was stuttering, I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t come up with the words... couldn’t come up with English. And I punched this dude in the face....I just couldn’t explain myself back then...There was just no outlet for my emotions.”
At a loss for words, Paulo needed a new outlet to express himself. He delved into music and focused on creating his own songs. After a few years in the US he developed a close group of musically inclined friends and they formed a band. Their nerdy side came out and they named the band Amion, taken from a band member’s misspelling of Amino Acid. Being in this band has been, so far, the highlight of Paulo’s musical career.
With his old band, Amion

            When I got him talking about the band he was so excited he was almost having trouble sitting still in his chair. “Once you learn how to perform and can get people listening or looking up to you, the excitement is insane,” he said. “Nothing can drive you, exhilarate you, like being on stage.”
            His time with the band, however, was short lived. After being offered a management contract with the band, Paulo backed out, citing the unfair distribution of the money, and the rest of the band followed suit.  Some band members were not as dedicated as others, and so eventually the band fell apart. But Paulo doesn’t blame only the other members of his band for its gradual decline.
            “I was being an asshole.”
            Although he remains friends with some of his old band mates, getting back together with them wouldn’t be an option. Their friendship has been easier without the strain of working together, and the thought of returning to his old bickering self prevents any temptation to return to that.
            Since his band fell apart in high school, Paulo has only performed on stage once. His four hour a day practices have dwindled down to an hour every week or two, and although he continues to write lyrics he rarely comes up with the music to accompany it. He wasn’t exactly sure when this cycle began, and he began to neglect his music, but the combination of classes and his devotion to the Asian Student Union (ASU) took up much of his time and made it even more difficult to focus on his music. But it’s hard to completely give up on something after having spent so much time dedicated to it. 

Performing for the ASU Culture Show
   He performed in the ASU Culture Show last fall, his first performance since high school, and he’s been trying to get more time into his schedule to devote to music. There is a talent show JMU is hosting this semester, and he’s interested in competing in it. It will take a lot of work to get back to the level he was at in high school, but Paulo is a passionate guy. He’s been busy these past few months, but his love of music has not died.
           In the meantime, the gap left by putting down his guitar is being filled by another passion. Paulo was recently elected president of ASU, where he has been able to express himself in a whole new way. Learning about his birth culture has helped him have a greater understanding of his own and his family’s past. All the energy and spirit he once poured into music is now focused on this club. And he’s got big plans.
            “I’m trying to push a parade. First time at JMU an organization organizes a parade for everyone to see. It’s going to be super cultural…That would pretty much accomplish my dream for my organization… to incorporate as many unsung talents… that’s why I’m so passionate about this.”
            I don’t doubt that Paulo can achieve this. It will of course take a lot of work, and with him trying to get back to guitar and music he will have an even busier schedule, but there is nothing standing in his way.
            Before our conversation ended, I asked Paulo if he would ever want to be in a band again.  
“What I would do to be in a band again...you need to have the most trusted people, the most committed people, and also the people you have great chemistry with. I wouldn’t go as far to say you’re home, but it’s really close to home.”
            Although it may be a little while before Paulo finds a new band, in the meantime he has his hands full.
            My next conversation, with Blue Ridge's Jessica Romero, will be posted with next week’s show. So stay tuned until then. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rachel Ratkowski, the Actor

When I ask her how to pronounce her name she says, “Rachel Ratkowski. It’s like a rat and a cow go skiing.”
Rachel has worked with children in the past, so I could tell that this introduction was one that she’d used often. She was talkative and enthusiastic; exactly what you would expect a performer to be. Rachel’s a graduate student in Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare and Performance program, and I can imagine her outgoing nature brings her characters to life. Rachel’s passion is not only for the stories that she is a part of, but for sharing them with the world. 
Rachel was three years old when her parents put her in her first play. She was the “kid with the turkey in a Christmas Carol”. She’s come a long way since then; all the way to the biggest female speaking role in Shakespeare, as Rosalind in As You Like It.
Her father is an actor, and she says her parents love telling the story of how she nagged them throughout her childhood, saying over and over “I want to do what daddy does”.
Her theatrically inclined parents (they met at Catholic University while working on their Master’s in Theater) fully support Rachel in her acting dreams. She received her undergraduate degree in theater at Adelphi University in New York, and took her first job for Prairie Fire Children’s Theater, a traveling theater, in Minnesota.
With one of the children at Prairie Fire
“It was me and one other person, and we would go into a town every week and teach up to 80 kids a whole musical in a week and perform with them. It was fun. It was theater boot camp-and-a-half, but it was wonderful.”
Spending her time working in the children’s theater helped Rachel realize how much she loved sharing her passion for theater, but in order to teach she needed to go back and get her master’s degree. Her love of Shakespeare brought her to Mary Baldwin, where there was a perfect mix of theater and education.
The first two years in the program are focused on scholarship and academia, but in the final third year the students are really able to dive into the theater aspect. The program turns them into their own theater company, Roving Shakespeare, where they put on five productions a year. A third year student, Rachel is almost done with her theatrical journey, at least in this program. They just put on a performance of King Lear, and in March will be performing As You Like It.
One of the greatest benefits of Mary Baldwin is its close relationship with The American Shakespeare Center. I’ve been to Blackfriars Playhouse several times— originally as part of my undergraduate Shakespeare course, but even after it was over I kept coming back. It’s a small theater, without any of the fancy lighting that modern theaters show off, but it’s precisely that intimacy that I found so appealing. The theater program at Mary Baldwin is privileged to be able to use the theater for performances, and the actors even occasionally teach courses.
Of course acting is not the only part of theater. In Rachel’s program they get to try a taste of everything, from directing to lighting, even costuming.  Rachel’s favorite play so far has been The Queens, a modern piece about the women in Richard III, directed by fellow student Michael Wagoner. Although she’s been grateful to taste all the different facets of a theater production, Rachel’s favorite part remains acting.
From the Original musical "Mashed Monsters in Minneapolis"
             with the theater group People Sitting Around Doing Theater.
            But being an actor isn’t all smiles and applause. Rachel says the challenge of balancing coursework with performances, as well as working a job on the side to help pay the bills, can be difficult, but in the end she’s sure it will be worth it. After graduation she hopes to teach, although ideally she’ll continue performing. She says she would like to teach any age group, and go wherever someone will need her, but after her time working in a children’s theater it seems to her that children just might be the ones who need theater most.
“Even if kids don’t grow up to be actors, I think it’s really important to have theater in the sense that, it builds your confidence to get out there and do a book report. . . it’s a fun way to do it.”
Rachel is the Fool. She is Miranda of the Tempest.  She is Puck, Rosalind, Gonzalo, and any other character she decides to become. She loves her craft and fully embraces every aspect of theater, and it was wonderful to have the chance to speak with her. Of course I did not think this interview would be complete without seeing her perform.
I drove down to Staunton to see the performance of King Lear at Blackfriars, but, unfortunately, it seems I will need to wait until their next performance to see her on stage. I got stuck behind an accident, so I decided to find a new route. What normally would have been a half hour drive turned into an hour, and after several wrong turns I realized the play had already begun and I would not make it. As disappointed as am I, I am even more excited to see her perform on March 16th. This time I think I’ll aim on getting there an hour early instead of twenty minutes, because there is no way I’m missing this for a second time.
Although I missed the full performance, I did manage to get a small taste of it. Rachel recited several lines from King Lear, which she is letting me share with you now. 

         If you’d like to see her on stage, Roving Shakespeare will be performing As You Like it March 16th,  in the Masonic Building at Mary Baldwin, and March 18th at Blackfriars. Both shows will begin at 7:30, but if you get there early you can enjoy the music starting at 7:15.
So stay tuned. My next conversation is with JMU's Paulo Dorado, to be posted with the next show.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Julia Skinner, the Intern

At a JMU Rugby game

         So here are the basics: I’m a twenty-one year old senior at James Madison, and I like experiencing new things. During college I’ve played rugby, joined a sorority, explored Europe, and sampled everything from Shakespearean plays to self-defense. 
I grew up in Hawaii, a redhead with a constant sunburn. I danced hula competitively for eleven years – in spite of my naturally clumsy nature – and developed an appreciation for culture and music. Spending so much time performing made stage fright an impossibility, plus I got play dress-up well into my teen years. My parents signed me up for a variety of things, from ballet (which I was kicked out of), to Tae Kwon Do, to various choirs and musical instruments (I was first chair French horn in band, but I was also the only French horn). Hula, however, was the only one that stuck.
When I got older and left Hawaii, it became more difficult to keep up with hula, and I began to look for other things to do. And this is where my restlessness kicked in. I did track, rugby, and kickboxing, tried my hand at crochet, piano, kayaking, and even started waitressing because I loved the idea of eventually being a bartender (and what college student couldn’t use some extra money to help pay the bills). Most things didn’t stick, but my passion for novelty continued. Anything unknown tempts me; I am in love with un-experienced adventure.
In Barcelona
         I started writing in the fifth grade around the time that the Lord of the Rings films came out. I was so blown away by the story that I immediately read the books and decided I wanted to create something as brilliant as Tolkien’s work. My early stories usually branched off from Tolkien’s and may have involved his male characters falling in love with a heroine who may or may not have resembled me, but eventually I created my own stories and ideas. Although I admit, I still have a bit of a crush on Orlando Bloom.
My writing has developed over the years, but my love for the unexplored and novel has long affected my work. I tend towards brevity, resulting in short stories based on an idea that engages me but never quite leads to a novel. I go after the moment, the sudden adventure, the potential within a single event or experience, and then quickly am distracted by the next. My works are numerous, but they have yet to come together into a single piece.
So, now that you know who I am, I’ll let you in on what exactly I am doing here.
In this column I hope to find other students who have a special inspiration that gets them going. Creativity can be found to all aspects of life; it has certainly driven me, and I hope to discover how it drives other people. To borrow from the show’s title, I hope to discover “The Spark” that drives others in their ambitions.
Stay tuned, so to speak. My first web conversation – with Mary Baldwin's Rachel Ratkowski – will be posted with next week’s show.