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.

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.