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Realistically Failing Forward: My History with the Arts and What I Want Now

“One of the saddest lines in the world is, ‘Oh come now – be realistic.’ The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were realistic. They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and gave them horses to ride.”

– Richard Nelson Bolles

Mom in her "squaw" days

When I say I love being a part of the creative process, I mean it more than anyone can imagine. In my earliest, happiest childhood memory I am three years old. It’s western Kentucky in the spring of 1973. Big sister is at school. Dad’s at work selling Buicks. It’s nap time. Mom, a 5-foot tall, better-looking version of Cher, has set up her easel and canvas in my bedroom. With her palette of oils in her left hand, brush in her right, I watch her dark, pin straight hair sway as she starts a new still life, a simple bowl of fruit. The world’s preoccupations melt away and she is in deep conversation with her muse, creating, creating, creating…oranges, apples and grapes starting to pull into focus. She is elated and fully engaged in her choices. Fascinating to me, I fall asleep, fully relaxed in that harmonious, consideration-free energy.

My father is also a “creative type,” but with a decidedly different, sometimes more strenuous process. A blogger before there was such a thing, in the early 1980’s Dad had his own column in our local paper, The Madisonville Messenger. Entitled “Madisonville after Hours,” Dad would write mostly fictional stories that had some kernel of truth to make them fun and engage the locals. At the time we lived outside the city limits in a brand new subdivision that lay a couple hundred yards from a train track mostly used by the coal industry. In the summer of 1982, Dad was laid off from his job at a local trucking company. With more free time than he knew what to do with, Dad took on his personal health. For reasons lost to time, he often chose to go jogging out on those grimy, lonely train tracks in the sweltering sun. Being a twelve-year old, I had nothing else to do, so I would go with him from time to time. I remember huffing and puffing along in my Bloom County t-shirt, shorts and Nikes, doing my best to space out my steps on the creosote-laden railroad ties, hoping to God I wouldn’t pass out and bust my hind end in the process. At night from my bed upstairs I would hear him downstairs typing away, weaving his stories. Being older now, I could offer one of my gifts to his creative process, the gift of spelling. Often on those summer nights, he would pause, come up the steps to my bedroom, and softly whisper in, “Julia, how do you spell ‘cousin?'” The result he produced from his time a’ workin’ on the railroad led to this chestnut of a story, “Tales of a Train Jogger.” Shortly after its publication we were headed into the local grocery store when a local man stopped Dad to tell him he’d seen that guy, the Train Jogger, out on the other side of town. “Oh, did you?” Dad said with a chuckle. What an incredibly cool trick to play, I thought, grinning ear-to-ear.

I'm Aemilia the Abbess. Think you can find me?

What was my medium? I got closer to it when I was introduced to speech and theater in high school. I remember as a freshman going to see my high school’s production of “Grease,” being absolutely blown away by how the spectacle of it all was put together so brilliantly. I remember saying to myself, “Yes, I wanna do this.” My first introduction to actually being associated with a production was when I stage managed the school’s production of the musical “Barnum.” Being labeled as “responsible” (Read: reasonable) at a young age made me a shoo-in for this position. I really aced the assignment. Props were where they were supposed to be, everyone was on time, we were golden. I finally got to be on stage when I was a serior as Aemilia the Abbess in our production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” While I was good, I was certainly not great. However, the creative world of the theater was where I really blossomed and I adored every second of every production with which I was connected.

Decision time set in. With college looming ahead of me, what major did I want to have? There was no way I was going to go in undeclared. College was expensive and I wasn’t going to waste anybody’s money or time. In retrospect I feel like I chickened out. In my 1989 thinking I chose to be a “responsible” (There’s that word again!) Speech Communication major rather than a “frivolous” Theater major. I had always been a good talker, if not the best listener, so Speech Comm was fairly easy for me, but down deep I knew it wasn’t what I wanted. I still managed to be involved in all kinds of productions, from stage managing the spring dance concert in 1990, to acting in several of my theater major friends’ directing projects. I always felt like I was on the outside of my dream looking in, too afraid to ask for what I wanted.

By 1997 I was back to my hometown of Murray, Kentucky. I’d managed to get a Master’s degree in TESOL, another “reasonable” choice that didn’t truly light me up. The experience was like buying that great V-neck shirt you buy in the store only to get it home and realize one sleeve is too long, or it wasn’t quite the right color that best suits you. While I loved being with my students, sweet souls from South Korea, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, right hand to God I really did not care if they learned how to say “pin” instead of “pen,” or “I sit on the seat,” versus “I shit on the sheet.” If you were ever my student and my classes maimed you in any way I apologize to you now!

One September day in 1999 my phone rang. It was an old friend from college who’d moved to New York to be an actor. The apartment across the hall from him was becoming available and did I want it? DID I WANT IT? HELL YEAH!!!! My chance to finally become an actor? I told people I didn’t care if I was a dancing pickle, come hell or high water I was gonna pursue my dream. I sold my Ford Taurus piece of crap car, sold my furniture, loaded all my stuff into two huge black duffle bags and off I went in a Greyhound bus bound for Manhattan. 26 hours later on October 27th, 1999 I arrived at the Port Authority, kissed the ground and set off in a taxi for my new home in Queens.

After playing tourist for two days, I settled down and got a job as a bartender for Broadway shows. I trained at the musical “Chicago” for five days, then settled in at my post at “Les Miserables” toting ice, pouring shots for harried school teachers during matinees (true story), and accounting for boxes of Junior Mints and Swedish Fish. As Les Miz was such a long show, I was sent out to do intermission help at other shows. I’d run through the streets of Times Square over to “Cats” in time to hear “Memory,” over to “Phantom of the Opera” to hear “All I Ask of You.” Back at Les Miz I was in the coat check in time to hear the encore of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” booming from the stage to thunderous applause. While it was great fun, it was not what I’d come to New York to do and the pay really sucked. With bills and rent coming due, I moved over into the corporate world, eventually spending eight years in corporate training and development in the incredibly dull, gray, soul-sucking, cutthroat, gritty world of government-sponsored health insurance. Don’t ask.

Me with one of my favorite interviewees, Hal Eisenberg from Windows of Opportunity (wooinc.org).

One day I saw something different was possible. I made friends with a guy who was an honest-to-goodness working screenwriter. I remember feeling instantly jealous, wondering how he did what he did. I peppered him with questions. This was his job? Wow! How did you get there? I met a lady who had her own production company and she showed me the basics of how to set up a shoot and how to use her equipment. What I quickly realized was with the rise of the internet and advances in technology that there was nothing stopping me from creating my own video projects. It was clearly time to take the plunge and invest in what I’d also wanted to do. With a friend experienced in production to advise me, I nervously entered B & H Photo on 33rd and 9th in Manhattan to make my purchases. I selected a Canon HD camcorder, two lavalier mics, all sorts of cables, and a basic lighting kit. Expensive! I went to the Apple store and bought a MacBook Pro. Just as expensive! Now I had to figure out how to use all this stuff. It was confusing to figure out so many new bells and whistles, but I felt more alive than I had in over a decade. Learning how to upload, edit and share video online was truly revolutionary to me. Knowing that I didn’t have enough equipment or experience to produce something on a grand scale, for my first project I created an interview show I hosted called “In The Gayborhood.” With that I learned what interviews connected with people and what didn’t. Long interviews didn’t work for the web. More interesting location shoots did. Some people who worked with me knew more of what they were doing than others. I got great feedback from my viewers telling me what a difference my show made for them. I also got harsh criticism from people who either hated the concept, or who disliked me for “stirring up trouble.” One day I got a call from a lady in Oklahoma telling me how brave I was for doing what I was doing. “Make more!” she said. I was on to something.

At Dolce Vizio making tiramisu. Biggest whisk ever!

After a bit I got tired of being both behind and in front of the camera. I wanted to see if I could produce something for someone else. Could I make someone else look good on camera? From that desire has come my most recent project with my buddy Nicole Cooper, a food travel web series based out of New York City called “a Taste of Nicole with Nicole Cooper.”  (http://nicolecooper.tv) Could I actually go into a restaurant and ask them to let us in to do a shoot? Who the hell was I? Would they see right through me and laugh me out of the place? Could I really create something fun that would look good as well? I was determined to be unreasonable and find out. Our first big shoot was in the spring of 2011 at Mia Chef Gelateria on 27th and 3rd. The owner was a young fellow I’d met at an charity event. He was happy to invite us into his downstairs kitchen and show us his process – fig and tequila gelato, Ferrerro-Rocher flavored gelato, strawberry sorbet… We had a fantastic time and created a fun video that has served us and his business well.

What’s next for this unreasonable woman? I want to take my creative expression to the next level, go beyond what I’ve ever thought possible for myself. I’m putting it out into the universe that I want my work with Nicole to be my full-time career. I want Gordon Elliott from Follow Productions, the man who “discovered” Paula Deen, to call me to schedule a business meeting to discuss a partnership. I want to be scheduling our next shoot in Paris at some little, out-of-the-way chocolatier. I want to be developing other new talents who would work and play well with us. This is who I am and this is what I want.

So now I want to hear from you. What’s your self expression? What’s your creative dream that you put on the shelf long ago? What do you want to do to make it happen? Are you open to looking at what’s possible now? I welcome your comments below. Share!

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7 comments on “Realistically Failing Forward: My History with the Arts and What I Want Now

  1. Beautifully written Julia! I see myself in there! Glad I was in NYV at the right time to make sure you followed your star!

  2. Wow. Beautifully written. I love the way you take your readers back to the beginning, unfolding and painting the most awesome pictures of your past. Your dad’s stories, “Tales of a Train Jogger” has a hint of William Faulkner’s style. I love the way his stories came about. Your mom and dad’s creative process as well as yours is inspiring. “A Thoroughly Unreasonable Woman” is a great title for a blog and bloody good way to go about living one’s dreams. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.

  3. It’s beautiful! I can really say that Julia is very unreasonable! She constantly teaches me to take the lid off (although I keep putting it back on!) and be creative. The images of your mom and dad are so right on. I love you! Keep going!!!!

  4. Awesome! A great read! I love hearing those stories of your Mom and our Dad. I had not heard the one about the ‘Train Jogger’ (or maybe I did and forgot) Thanks for sharing and keeping all of those memories alive! Your passion is inspiring. I love my job, but the verdict is out on my ‘self expression’…..I will keep you posted. 🙂 love ya!

  5. Julia! It is extremely ironic how all day I have been feeling the exact same way and here you go talking about it! I love how you set up the timeline and how you had your “Ahha” moment!

    For years I have dealing with this issue and how I just can’t seem to get away from the “corporate, gray, cutthroat world of government sponsored health insurance” and how I wish I could just get back and tap into my creative side again.

    Awesome Work Julia!

  6. Applause! Applause! Be completely unreasonable and make your dream come true.m

  7. Thank you Julia, for being yourself and allowing others to do the same. You let people know we gays are just everyday people like everybody else and that is a good thing! I enjoy reading your posts and your blog. My creative endeavors is to create more art. I really like to paint, I took a small detour looking for that special someone, that’s a creative endeavor too!

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