Wichita Has a Big Sky

November 15, 2008

Sky in Wichita, Kansas

I just spent a day and a half in Wichita, Kansas.  But it was not the What’s Wrong With Kansas  Kansas and not even  the “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Kansas.  I experienced a very different Kansas.

Wichita has a big sky.  When I walked down the steps of the commuter jet and onto the tarmac of a brilliant Indian summer day in early November, the first thing I noticed was that sky.  Well, you couldn’t really help but notice it.  It envelops you in its expansive embrace.  It is like being inside of a large, translucent, upside-down mixing bowl.

I was back in Wichita to participate in a Wichita Arts Council creative industries workshop and to speak at the Arts Partners (http://www.artspartnerswichita.org) annual Arts Count luncheon.  I was introduced to Wichita twelve years ago.  I had helped to facilitate the establishment of the Arts Partners program, which created a community partnership among Wichita’s arts organizations, artists and schools to promote the creative development of Wichita’s kids.  In the intervening years I had enjoyed periodic reports about the growth of this wonderful program.

My return to Wichita in post-election 2008 has given me hope for the future of America and convinced me that Wichita’s depth, steadiness and vision will fuel an American renaissance.  Yes, that is the Kansas that I experienced.

What’s the magic bullet?  Visionary, passionate leadership, engaged citizens and a vibrant cultural community.  Mayor Carl Brewer is a bigger-than-life, charismatic leader with a booming voice, who super-charges any room he walks into.  He and his dedicated City Council passed a mil tax allocation for the arts and culture that will amount to a $15 million investment over the next five years (in this economy). And those engaged citizens?  They passed a $370 million bond issue on election day that will, among other things, lower class size and construct new arts facilities for area schools (in this economy!).  I was told that the bond issue passed despite strong, organized opposition, the dismal economic climate and the fact that nearly 70% of the electorate don’t have kids enrolled in Wichita’s public schools.  They just did the right thing for everyone else’s kids.

A vibrant cultural life in Wichita?  Yes, all you right and left coasters, take note!  The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation knew this when they chose to make a significant investment in Wichita’s youth in 1997 to establish the Arts Partners program.  And that cultural life has only continued to grow in quantity and quality since my last visit. Arts Partners Executive Director Katie Lynn and Program Director Liz Kennedy preside over a full range of artistic resources that are helping to develop Wichita’s youth as innovators and engaged citizens.

There are far too many spark plugs in the cultural community for me to acknowledge here, but the Director of Music Theatre of Wichita  (http://www.musictheatreofwichita.org) Wayne Bryan is my nomination for poster boy!  I met Wayne during my frequent visits to Wichita in 1997 and 1998.  Wayne is a New York actor/director who took over Music Theatre of Wichita in 1988 and found an artistic and personal home.  Wayne recognized the unique role his organization could play in Wichita that could also have a national and international impact in the musical theater world.  (Kelli O’Hara, the sensation in the current Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific is only one of hundreds of stars launched by Music Theatre of Wichita.)  Wayne’s gentle and self-effacing demeanor and popularity both in Wichita and the international theatre world belie his high artistic standards and keen managerial skills, not to mention that he runs a small business that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic impact for the city of Wichita.

But a trip to Wichita packs surprises and this time was no exception.  I was on a panel during the creative industries workshop with Jason Olpat. We bonded when I saw his tricked-out MAC laptop with the DVI connector that I needed for my keynote address for the Arts Partners luncheon.  Typical of Wichitaans, he didn’t hesitate when I explained my technical predicament.  He handed me the connector as a loaner.  Then I asked him what he did and found out that he runs Integrated Media Group (http://www.integratedmediagrp.com)  that supplies digital interface graphics to Hollywood and beyond from right there in Wichita! I asked him the next all-telling question that relates to workforce development concerns.

“Where do your employees come from?”

I envisioned a Tom Friedman The World is Hot, Flat and Crowded group of techies who had been plucked from the thousands of arts and technical schools that have been recently built in China and India.

“They’re all Kansans,” he replied proudly.

He then went on to tell me that two had trained right there at Wichita State University.  Jason grew up in Lindsbourg and trained at Bethany College.

Wichita really does have a big sky.


Joan Baez Finds Her Groove

October 29, 2008

OK, I admit it.  I REALLY didn’t want to go hear Joan Baez at Town Hall last night.  Bob and I went to see her about 15 years ago at the Beacon and she was all weirded out trying to both tap in and distance herself from her Bob Dylan days.  But marriage is a partnership, yes?  So he agreed to go to the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific on Thursday and I agreed to go to Joan Baez last night.

From the beginning it didn’t look good.  We arrived in a cold, downpour and there was no line at the will call window of the box office.  Then slowly some very old people started to show up.  We must have gotten late-released house seats as we ended up to the right of center on the third row! It looked like there were lots of empty seats and I figured everyone just had election fatique or was too old to come out.

Within the last minute before the performance started, the hall was nearly full.  Three folk/blues/rockabilly looking dudes walked out with an elegant, thin woman with stylish shortly-cut, gleaming silver hair. She was dressed in a sleek black silk pants ensemble with a fringed, gold scarf wrapped once around her neck with one piece draping down her left side.  She wore simple, small drop diamond earrings and a matching pendant necklace.  “Is that her?” I asked Bob who has adored her since he was in high school.  I sort of still pictured the long dark-haired, Amazing Grace Joan Baez.

Then she started to sing. The voice was clear, straightforward and unforced but certainly recognizable as that of Joan Baez.  At one point she stopped to chew a throat lozenge and take a drink.  She remarked, “The voice is a gift.  My job is maintenance and delivery.”  She was poised and so comfortable in her current skin.  She was funny and she didn’t pander to anyone.  Her political voice was kept predominantly to her music both old and new ballads except for the moment when she asked the audience to  give it up for Obama.  After the tumultuous roar subsided, she laughed, “I can see we have a diverse house tonight.”

I guess she has recently released a new album. Two of the songs from that album were particularly moving, God is God and Day After Tomorrow. Those just got added to my iTunes collection.

I loved having my expectations shattered.  I loved seeing an “older woman” revel in her current capacities and accept her limitations.  I loved the power of the arts and artists to transform our lives.

Election as Transformation

October 25, 2008

There is a lot at stake in the U.S. Presidential election.  John McCain and Barack Obama are both good men who sincerely want to serve their country, but I feel that we must elect Barack Obama. Following his election we have to reach out to the bitter McCain supporters to convince them to work together under Obama’s leadership to bring about the transformation that this country so desperately needs.

We need to fundamentally change our very way of life as individuals, communities and as a nation if we are to continue to offer the world’s best hope for the future as we have in the past 100 years.  We need creativity, innovation and compassion to recreate our nation and revitalize its legacy.  Our prosperity has been our greatest challenge as it has turned us into a consumer democracy that has diverted our focus inward instead of causing us to see ourselves as part of a community, a state, a nation and an entire world.

I believe that Barack Obama can be the transformational leader that we need.  His very existence as a combination of races and cultures is a metaphor for his potential to lead this transformation.  His steady and thoughtful demeanor can stop the cycle of drama that has been our political scene for the last 25 years or more that has been fueled by a media turned into an entertainment infomercial selling us consumer products and services we don’t need. He is both intelligent and compassionate. He is our last best hope.

Obama will face many challenges. His most urgent goal must be to bring the country together in a way that both challenges and empowers individuals to commit to the greater good.  That may mean we can’t buy as many things, or use as much gasoline, or eat as many unhealthy foods.  And it doesn’t have to feel like deprivation.  Personally, I will rely on my wonderful background in the arts that has fed my creativity and my soul.  We all need to find our own personal hook and start being part of the solution.

Let’s do the right thing for once!

Tilting at Windmills

September 25, 2008


In La Mancha

In La Mancha

I studied Cervantes Don Quixote as a teenager in Missouri.  At that time, Franco was the dictator of Spain and I was sure I would never actually see the La Mancha plains or the famous “gigantes” de La Mancha.  Sitting under those windmills with my son who is living and studying in Spain and who has far surpassed my Spanish speaking ability, made me realize the power of great literature to provide the spark of inspiration.  Now these wonderful windmills are the symbol of my own personal struggle against the gigantes that life has put in my path. I did, in fact, continue my love of the Spanish language and culture.  I have travelled in Spain and now this language and culture is providing inspiration and life experience to my son.  Donde está mi caballo, Rosinante?

Beach Picnic as Inspiration!

August 13, 2008
Cookin' Up Dreams on Egypt Beach!

Cookin Up Dreams on Egypt Beach

How can we get in touch with our own creativity? Inspiration and insight often come only when we do something ordinary in extraordinary circumstances. . . like preparing a meal on the beach! Last Saturday night my husband and I hosted my two best friends from college in an improvised dining room and kitchen on Egypt Beach in East Hampton! Where else can you swim in your dining room? We cooked tamales, corn and lobster on an open fire followed by s’mores–those gooey, marshmellow, Hersey bar and Graham Cracker campfire desserts. And what was the inspiration that was cooked up? A new professional pathway for my friend Carolyn Wollen. Check out her new blog: quiltfrolics.wordpress.com

Coming out of the chrysalis!

August 7, 2008

So, here I am in cyberspace. I am sitting in my garden and watching delicate butterflies float among the flowers and feeling as if I have emerged in a new dimension. I am the lotus opening in the sunlight.

Open and enlighten!

Open and enlighten!