The Project Room partners with the Seattle Public Library Foundation to support the Stimson Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship. Lena Easton-Calabria tells us about the Makah Tribe's fight to reclaim their whaling rights.Read More
My first hero is actually a heroine. Two heroines, to be exact: Charlotte and Emily Brontë (Sorry, Anne, didn’t read you until college). What struck me the most was the power of the female voice at a time where women were still very much repressed, restricted and, well—unheard of as artists. It was probably the intrigue that surrounded the Brontë Sisters that I enjoyed the most, as it created a life-long dream inside me, of going to the Parsonage. What were these moors they lived on? How did they write about such passions and desires? How did these women write such compelling fiction, when they hardly left their homes?
With Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, I learned from Jane about confidence and power, but I also learned about independence. Jane was her own woman in the end, despite the fact that she, well, ends up with Rochester.
But with Emily’s Wuthering Heights, I learned from both Catherine and Heathcliff.
Catherine taught me that the heart goes on no matter what. Love, goes on. I was drawn to the fact that despite marrying Linton and making that wrong choice, she knew her heart belonged to Heathcliff and, in her death, she recognized that love.
I think Heathcliff is my hero, despite the fact that he’s a misanthrope, and that some see him as a gothic, psycho-villain. To me, he is a tortured soul. He is heartbroken and alone. No one understands him, and he needs. He wants. He taught me that everything we do in life is a choice, and we have to be wise. And though he loses Catherine, he gains her in the end in the afterlife. Yes, I’m a romantic, but the Brontës were, too. Clearly. They both have made me into my own heroine.
Leah Umansky’s first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties, is out now by BlazeVOX [Books.] Her Mad-Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream is forthcoming from Kattywompus Press in early 2014. She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a live twitterer for the Best American Poetry Blog. She also hosts and curates the COUPLET Reading Series. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Thrush Poetry Journal, and The Brooklyn Rail. Read more at: http://iammyownheroine.com
See Leah present her work at The Project Room on February 27th in Transforming Text- free!
My first hero, if we’re sticking to chronology, was probably Ozzie Newsome, the NFL Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns in the late-’70s/’80s. A few years ago one of my sisters dug out a copy of a letter I wrote to him, seeking advice on how to deal with schoolyard bullies. A more pertinent early hero, however, was the science-fiction author Isaac Asimov, whose books -- my God, he must’ve written hundreds -– I devoured as a child. I wrote to Asimov, too, this time seeking advice on how a kid might grow up to be a writer. Asimov, unlike Ozzie Newsome, wrote me back, and his terrifically simple counsel -– to read as much as possible, and to practice writing as much as possible -– still stands as the best and most concise advice on writing I’ve ever heard. Read, write, repeat. Everything else is just details.
Jonathan Miles‘s latest book, WANT NOT came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in November 2013. “Well, I loved this book,” raved Dave Eggers in the New York Times Book Review, “Jonathan Miles can write, and here he’s written a wonderful book, and there’s no one I would not urge to read it.” Jonny’s first novel, DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES, was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. A former columnist for the New York Times, he serves as a contributing editor to magazines as diverse as Field & Stream and Details. A former longtime resident of Oxford, Mississippi, he currently lives with his family in rural New Jersey. Jonathan is reading from his newest book, Want Not, At University Books on MONDAY NOVEMBER 18 at 7:00PM. More info can be found here
Timberbeasts, seaman, street fighters and biologists, spreading out of Novia Scotia and into the Great Pacific NW by land and by sea: these were the dinner stories of my dad. On my mom’s side I heard of covered wagons, charm school and running printing houses; tales of the last three generations of my family.Read More
My first hero is totally a fictional character. I didn’t have a lot of good role models (who does?) so it’s probably not very surprising. I was born right in the middle of the 1970s, the same year the Runaways were born, and the year Lynda Carter first donned the strapless red, blue, and gold bootyshort costume that is iconically Wonder Woman. I will never forget her.
It’s ridiculous to watch it now. It’s super campy and the plot line is – I don’t even know what it is. She gets the bad guy and looks great doing it. But Lynda Carter is still the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen on television and her disco glam version of Wonder Woman will always be first in my heart. When I was four, I was inseparable from the bracers and crown that I would make out of paper and I would wear everywhere until they fell apart. When they did, I made more. My grandmother (who raised me) would help me carefully wrap the poster board in foil so it would be “metal” and I’d color it with a yellow marker to make it gold. If my grandmother insisted upon the removal of said adornment because of something as mundane as a bath, I’d yell indignantly. Greek goddesses don’t need to remove their armament to bathe – they’re just magically amazing and nice-smelling. They probably don’t even need baths. How silly to even suggest it.
Later, in 2nd grade at a school carnival, I was over the moon about a cardboard Wonder Woman at the photo booth. As I stepped up the ladder to put my head over her body the photographer exclaimed, “You look just like her!!” and I thought I would die. The resulting photo does not make any effort to hide the biggest, shit-eating grin I think I’ve ever worn.
As I grew up and got into comics, my love for her became deeper. It isn’t just that she’s drop-dead gorgeous, tall, athletic, independent, super strong, and invincible. It’s that she’s complex. Descended from Amazons and Greek mythology, she is expected to endure a world that is not yet ready for her. If she removes her bracers, she will be unfathomably powerful but she will also lose her mind. Once, she gave up her powers to stay here. She got them back. She’s smart as hell, using her wit and wisdom to solve problems, not using her beauty. She’s been through multiverses and spans a myriad of alternate Earths. She’s in love with Hades. She is presumed to love Superman. She is a warrior, but she is a woman.
The love affair blooms because she, like most Greek heroes, is who we aspire to be. The truth is that Wonder Woman is the ultimate human. She is not infallible. She’s emotionally layered. She has to make tough choices and they may not always be the right ones – there are consequences. We can do it all, but there is always a price. You can’t have everything. We can imagine ourselves in her place, doing the same thing, facing the same choices. It’s a fantasy – of course we could never be her. But, because she is human, we see ourselves in her, and we dream that some part of her exists in us, too.
Sharon is a Seattle-based artist, curator, and writer. She studied at Pratt Institute in New York and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Cornish College of the Arts, focusing on sculpture, art history, and philosophy. She is Founder of Bridge Productions/LxWxH and writes for her art blog Dimensions Variable and Art Nerd Seattle.
Some notes about the images: The Bather by William Bouguereau 1879 Photoshopped by FlashDaz for an online contest– I included it because it’s my favorite adaptation of Wonder Woman and it merges my art life with my superhero life; Wonder Woman’s New 52 costume. Panel from Justice League Vol. 2 #3 (Nov. 2011). Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams; Wonder Woman in battle armor: 2003 DC Comics Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Princess. –SA
My father was tallish—6 feet or so– taciturn—said little but communicated much. Ever sartorially elegant he was invariably dressed in one of his Brooks Brothers suits—two of which he purchased each year—and shoes he obsessively cared for—most often polishing them himself.
Originally a school teacher who grew up on a southern farm in Tennessee, he morphed into a northern suburban Dad in New York, commuting by subway everyday from Queens to jobs in Manhattan–at any number of architectural firms where he navigated the politics—having others take credit for his work—and the economics—dealing with finding another job in another firm as soon as the current one laid him off in economically scarce times. The amazing thing is that that he managed this deftly, never skipping a beat so that we never experienced scarcity or want. He eventually found a consistent job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey where his greatest pleasure was the work he did on the Authority’s flagship structure: the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. He would die two years before 9/11.
For me he was protector, disciplinarian—he could stop me in my tracks with a single look—and patient and willing chauffeur. He would also be my date at a museum opening when my boyfriend punked out—I took out my first membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was in high school—and he patiently observed all my creative endeavors including unsuccessful stints as a violinist and a guitarist. As I made my way in the institutional and corporate world I came to know full well what he had weathered and how he survived the lurking exclusions and outright racism that he faced—and refused to be deterred by—to go on to have what by any measure was an amazing career. He was a hands-on mentor guiding me in strategies to swerve away from the usual triggers of race and gender to analyze the situation in a larger societal context. It was that equanimity and toughness that inspired me and made my father my first hero.
Lowery Stokes Sims is a Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design. Sims was on the education and curatorial staff of The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1972-1999 where she curated over 30 exhibitions. Sims then served as executive director, president and adjunct curator for the permanent collection at The Studio Museum in Harlem from 2000-2007.
Photo of Lowery and her father, circa 1975
3 Responses to “Who Was Your First Hero, Lowery Stokes Sims?”
Barbara Earl Thomas says:
September 26, 2013 at 5:36 pm (Edit)
Wonderful to see Lowery here in “First Hero.” I can attest that her dad did a wonderful job of guiding and mentoring her. While I didn’t know him personally I can say I believe I’ve encounter his good works in his daughter. It’s amazing what we can learn from our parent’s lives and how their lessons continue to teach us long after their time with us is past. It’s how we keep them living with us in the present. When I miss my father I simply speak in his voice and say something I may have heard him say or something I think he might have said. Makes me smile and brings him into my present.
Cee Scott Brown says:
September 26, 2013 at 9:08 pm (Edit)
I LOVE this.
Linda Earle says:
September 27, 2013 at 4:16 pm (Edit)
Mr.Sims was all that — dashing, funny graceful and so very proud of Lowery.
My first awareness of an adult public figure was of Mahatma Ghandi. At about seven years old, I would ask my parents “who is that old man in a diaper appearing in the newsreels.” I would say that my first “hero” was Bertrand Russell and his BAN THE BOMB movement when I was about eleven or twelve years old (1952 or 1953). I had been questioning my parents about the use of the atomic bomb in Japan as a child and our “duck and cover” drills in grade school and it just didn’t make sense to kill people (particularly me and my grade school chums).
Paul Marioni is one of the founding members of the American Studio Glass movement. He will be presenting stories from his life and work– along with a rare film screening– at The Project Room and Northwest Film Forum on October 2nd at 6pm. Read more about this program here. Photo of Marioni in a friend’s garden by Martin Janecky, 2013.
First Heroes: Cowboys, Parents, Television
My heroes have always been cowboys.
And they still are, it seems.
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of,
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.
-Recorded by Willie Nelson, 1980, but first released by Waylon Jennings in 1976, and written by Sharon Vaughn.
That song plays in my mind when I think of heroes. My dad took me to my first concert, Willie Nelson, in 1982 when I was twelve. At thirteen, I witnessed my second concert, Laurie Anderson, with my mom. O’ Superman, Oh Mom and Dad … They divorced in 1976, and just knowing their musical tastes I understand why. But there’s true complexity in all relationships and, while I get that my parents could not stay married, deep down I wanted a ‘normal’ family. So where else would I find normal? On TV! On television, families seemed perfect and I wanted to be there.
On The Brady Bunch I could be a fourth (brunette) sister, and on The Facts of Life I would easily have been a boarding house girl with Mrs. Garrett, and have Tootie and Natalie as my best friends. I looked a little like Molly Ringwald, who starred in the first season, and growing up in LA, I once was accused of being her by a homeless man.
I loved television and would memorize all the intro songs to my favorite shows and sing them with friends on the swing sets after kindergarten. Swinging high on the swings and singing those tunes felt a tiny bit closer to connecting. Except for the time I accidently kicked a teacher in the head who was walking by: she came too close to the entertainment. Fame did not appeal to me, it was more that I related to how family appeared, and how easily conflict was resolved in the 22 minute sit-coms or the 48 minute comedy dramas.
I fantasized about being on Eight is Enough: they could have had nine, or squeeze me into Different Strokes: (‘What you talkin’ about, Erin!’)
I would’ve been a neighbor on The Jeffersons and, although I loved Good Times, I am not sure I could have been on that show as a white girl–but I still wanted to be.
Understanding the dynamics of race, class, and social position wasn’t in my knowledge base yet–I could tell time by TV, but age-wise we’re talking six to thirteen or so, and mostly I was really lonely. In some ways I am closer to Willie’s Cowboys than I might think:
“I learned of all the rules of the modern-day drifter,
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long.
Cowboys are special with their own brand of misery,
From being alone too long.”
I admit that I loved the Dukes of Hazard, but even as a young girl was bothered that Daisy Mae had to wear such short shorts; I found it embarrassing. I didn’t understand critical terms like the Male Gaze or objectification, but something sat funny. I just wanted to be part of their family and perhaps drive a fast car. They were maybe the closest I got to TV Cowboys though, since Bonanza seemed too old of a show, although it was in re-runs. I can’t forget Little House on the Prairie. I loved that show and could easily have been an adopted child like Albert. Living on the land, no electricity, going to a one-room schoolhouse, playing in the dirt, I could imagine it. Especially while eating Kraft macaroni and cheese during the cozy winters of Los Angeles in 1980.
My personal Emmy would probably have to go to The Love Boat.
It was Saturday night television at its best, a hodgepodge of characters coming together to help the passengers find love on the sea. (BTW, I have no desire to be on a cruise ship in real life, ever.) My ultimate fantasy? Captain Stubbing would discover me and ask me to come on the show as Vicki’s best friend. I’d drink Shirley Temples with Isaac, play shuffleboard with Julie, complain about queasiness with the Doc, goof off with Gopher and then sit at the Captain’s table with Vicki and her Dad at dinner.
I used to think it was sad that I watched so much TV, but I now believe that it helped shape me. Eventually I could see the chimera and understand the evolution of pop culture in my brain. Loneliness is not a plague as much as a state of creativity if one is willing to wallow for a bit, process and transcend. Once I thought that TV had calf-roped me. Now I think it was really just opening doors, giving me a horse to ride into the sunset.
Erin Shafkind lives in Seattle, WA where she teaches, makes art, enjoys writing and loves taking pomegranates apart one seed at a time. Her favorite colors are red, green, and blue, although she’s partial to blue considering her house, car, and kitty all share the same hue. She still watches TV, but not as much, she also loves to walk at Seward Park, read books and magazines that are printed on paper, and wonders often about the clouds and other weather related phenomenoms. She left Los Angeles in 1988 for Northern California and later came to Seattle in 1997. She will probably stick around, practicing a little of everything and laughing whenever possible.
All images reproduced from a 2010 performance titled “My Life in Pictures”, 12 Minutes Max, On the Boards, Seattle, WA.
When I was a kid, I loved building tiny reading nooks. The landscape of my childhood was populated by a series of idiosyncratically constructed libraries: the corrugated cardboard bookshelves I installed in my dad’s old van, the bedside table and diminutive chair that I tucked into the corner of my closet.
I would spend hours organizing my books according to shifting hierarchical ranking systems that reflected my mood, and I loved the challenge of arranging them in relation not only to other books, but to the larger context of the events going on in my life. The perennial favorites were books that evolved with me, the titles that possessed the versatility to walk in tandem with me as I shifted from childhood to adolescence (and maybe to adulthood? I still mostly think of myself as very tall nine year old who just happens to like men and bourbon), unfurling seemingly endless layers of whatever it was that I most needed.
Nothing—book or otherwise—has consistently touched more points of my life than Bill Watterson’sCalvin and Hobbes. Simply put, Bill Watterson was my first hero. And book tangents aside, first heroes are what this post is about.
The Project Room is in the process of switching between Big Questions. We’ve spent the last year and a half basing our programming and written content around Why do we make things?, and as part of that line of inquiry, we asked contributors to respond to the Quest(ion) prompt What was the first thing you ever made?
In June we are moving to the next Big Question of How are we remembered?, and are changing the Quest(ion) accordingly. As you may have guessed, we are now asking Who was your first hero?
We spent a lot of time trying to come up with the right Quest(ion) prompt. It needed to be broad enough to be a universal experience, but specific enough to evoke a strong personal response. We threw a lot of ideas around and none of them quite worked: it felt a bit like trying to artificially impose a nickname rather than allowing circumstances to naturally give rise to it. But we knew that we finally got it right when Jess bounced Who was your first hero? off of me, and I instantly had an answer.
I became an artist because of Calvin and Hobbes. When I was back home visiting my family recently, I was digging through the attic and found an old childhood sketchbook. It’s from an era when I was apparently deep in my knights/dragons/princesses-in-need-of-saving phase, but it is also full of drawings of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips.
Bill Watterson’s comics were my first introduction to the liberating quality of my own mind, to the idea that imagination was limitless. I didn’t understand the nuances of Calvin and Hobbes when I first began reading it, but rather saw my own experiences and passions mirrored in Calvin’s curiosity, independence, and stubborn refusal to conform to external expectations. I also share Calvin’s deep love of dinosaurs.
I first saw in Calvin my own joy of play and forward motion, and as I got older and grew into the conflicted ambiguities of a less binary world view, Calvin and Hobbes was right there with me. Calvin’s experience of finding an injured raccoon and coming to terms with its death was one of my first introductions to mortality:
And watching the intimate conversation between Calvin’s parents after their house is robbed eased me into the terrifying and universal realization that our parents don’t know everything, that they are real people wrestling with their own sets of fears and fallibilities:
Later, as I began growing into the idea that I was an artist and tried to figure out what that meant, Calvin and Hobbes helped me navigate the pretensions and jargon endemic to fine art in order to find a way to my own voice:
Watterson’s veiled jabs at the structures of high art inculcated me with the still-held belief that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself as an artist is to go play outside and poke things with sticks:
When I turned eighteen, I got my first tattoo:
Watterson’s little red wagon scenes are some of my favorite strips. They perfectly capture the exuberance of momentum, and offer a physical proxy to some of my most deeply held beliefs. Calvin’s wagon rides taught me that if you’re going to do something, you put the force of your full self behind it and see it through to the end. Hobbes had a habit of jumping off the wagon at the top of the hill, but Calvin was never daunted by uncertainty, and watching him emerge time and time again from ravines and bramble bushes reinforced my dedication to the notion that the hardscrabble journey through the forest is always worth the inevitable crashes. But perhaps most importantly, Watterson’s wagon scenes instilled in me the notion that just because something is heavy and complicated does not mean that it can’t also be really funny.
My parents of course hated the fact that I was getting a tattoo, and they asked me how I could possibly know that I’d still like Calvin and Hobbes thirty years from now. Unlike the lines of my tattoo, which have naturally thickened and blurred over the years, my response has not changed: If I ever reach a point in my life where these messages don’t resonate with me, I will know that I have taken a very, very wrong turn somewhere along the line.
Every time I think that I have wrung everything I can out of Watterson’s work, some new layer emerges and I am proven wonderfully wrong. I have recently begun a creative transition from painter to graphic novelist, and as such, I am revisiting Calvin and Hobbes from a technical perspective. Now I turn to the strip with a fine appreciation for the nuances of Watterson’s brushstrokes, and my palpitations of delight are for the fluidity of his panel design and his incredible ability to capture the trembling potential of an open landscape.
When I told friends that I was writing this piece about Calvin and Hobbes, they questioned if it was really accurate to say that my first hero was Bill Watterson: they thought my hero was actually Calvin. But Watterson obliquely taught me that there is no real division between an artist and the work that they create, and this understanding is something I turn to over and over again. There is something beautiful and brave in watching a mind struggle with itself, and I have profound admiration for the way in which Watterson used Calvin and Hobbes as a vehicle to dispel his own misanthropy and remind himself of his capacity for wonder.
Bill Watterson’s work reminds me of who I want to be both as an artist and as a human being, and he remains the rare exception to the general rule: he is a hero who, for me, has never fallen from grace. When Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, I unabashedly admit that I cried myself silly. But I ultimately hold tremendous respect for Watterson’s commitment to his own sense of artistic integrity and his decision to end the strip on his own terms. It was a perfect exit.
I keep the last strip of Calvin and Hobbes taped to the wall above my drawing table. It is my absolute favorite piece of art, and it speaks for itself:
Would you like to answer the Quest(ion) and tell us about your first hero? Email me and let’s talk.
I don’t recall that I had heroes per se, growing up, but my understanding of the possibilities of life was strongly shaped by a few mentors and role models. Here are some of the things that were said to me that I think about every day.
When I was 14 or 15 my father told me that every era is characterized by common beliefs that almost everyone subscribes to. Question them, and you begin to think for yourself, he said. This is important he added, because only by thinking for yourself that you have a chance to do something that matters.
Around 16 I studied general relativity with a mathematician called Paul Esposito who told me to think about a physics or math problem every night before going to sleep. I still do this and I have often found that I wake with a solution in mind.
Much later, when I was a new graduate student, Richard Feynman told me that in physics there are things that everyone believes but no one can demonstrate. He said that if a lot of very smart people try to prove something and fail, you might find it much easier to prove the opposite. When I told him some of my early ideas about quantum gravity his evaluation was, “Not nearly crazy enough.”
As I was finishing graduate school, I briefly met the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend after one of his classes, and took the opportunity to ask his advice. “As long as you know exactly what you want to do,” he replied, “no one in the academic world will put as much energy into saying no to you as you can put into saying yes…Never in my academic career,” he finished, “have I spent two minutes doing something I didn’t want to be doing.” I turned for a moment to get my coat and when I looked back again he was gone.
Lee Smolin has made influential contributions to the search for a unification of physics. He is a founding faculty member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His previous books include The Trouble with Physics, The Life of the Cosmos, and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. He will be speaking at Seattle’s Town Hall on May 7.