Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Slipping into Columbus | Art, Poetry and Finding the Community I Sought After

(I’ve been trying to write this in several ways and forms. I already two very different drafts of what I want to say but haven’t quite been able to coherently put together in word. I think I have finally written what I want to say. It’s a tad bit long but it’s directly from my heart.)

I’ve been making art, and mainly, been indulging in live-sketches for several years now. I have seen myself grow as an artist and a person, used art as a conversation-starter and indulge in discussions with people about community, tangible and intangible heritage, and what it means to have something so significant to themselves stand in a place as a testimony to their life experiences. Walking around the city and drawing places and buildings, making art is my way of comprehending how the city functions, how it lives, the styles and characters it comes to acquire, the way tangible and intangible heritage, people and stories morph to present an entire picture; it has been my way of connecting with the city and its people, to feel like I belong, perhaps? Art for me, as a process, is slipping myself into familiarity from the unfamiliar. It is my means of putting myself out there, vulnerable and in public eye; for possible criticism and rejection. Art means pushing the extents of my comfort zone to make it even bigger, to accommodate the new, and forge new connections. I’ve been doing these live-sketches for all those reasons in addition to actually wanting to document the tangible heritage of the city, its stories and what it means to the community to have a piece of them in something so physical- as a trained architect with a proclivity to support conservation and adaptive re-use of historic and community-inclined spaces.

With all that in mind and hand, I have been actively seeking community in the last two years of my stay in Columbus. I moved from Madras, a city I had lived in for two decades, a place I knew like the back of my hand. Community for me in Madras was a given. I has lived in the same neighbourhood all my life and I knew every other person in the area, and even as I moved outside in the city; or sometimes even across state lines. I’d bump into people on the road: classmates, friends, family, the grocer, the rice-merchant, the electrician, the flower-seller, my father's barber, the beauticians from the saloon down the road, the street-side tailor, the guy who fixes my bike, the mechanic, the auto-drivers in the stand close to my house, teachers, acquaintances, the was a given for me. I was an established gymnast and athlete and I had different circles of acquaintances: school, training peers, music class peers, so and so forth. I could stop at any point in my city and never feel odd about wanting a glass of water from a local establishment or a public group. That, in fact, was the first thing that was offered when you walked through anyone’s doors: food and drink, if not anything- some water. It was a sign of inclusion. I was never an outsider to have to actively seek relationships, friendships or functioning people of the community because I acquired them in time—through school, through college, through friends and family. So, when I had to literally leave everything that I knew and built over the course of time behind in my coming to a new city and a new country to pursue new goals- I knew then, that this was my chance to actively seek community. This time, it was going to be different because America has a different culture than India. I had to make an effort to reach out, I had to decide who I was going to be associated with, what I was going to do and where I was going to start in this entire pursuit. I was excited in a way to be in a city where no one knew me—it’s a fresh slate. I was even a tad bit happy to be away from the sometimes prying eyes of the community I was a part of, in Madras.

I want to tell you to be careful what you wish for at this point, because sometimes you get it. My initial honeymoon phase with self-sufficiency and independence (different from Madras’s version of the same) was joyful. I loved the anonymity I had. No one knew me and I was completely on my own—in full, (Though was I complete? That was another question altogether) It faded soon though, not the joyful learning in independence or self-sufficiency but in the lacking of a strong foothold—a space to go to for more learning, support and sharing. I lacked a community outside of my graduate life the first six months I was here. I don’t want to beat myself up about it because grad-life is all-consuming. Every single bit of extra project, art or poetry I do outside school takes all the remaining energy and sleep I could have potentially garnered. But those interactions I’ve come to build is also sustenance I’m grateful for. With a brief interim (not in art though), I resumed going after what I have always wanted to do in this search for a good community to be a part of. I started exploring the campus at the time and started doing live-sketches. See, I’ve done this before—but with different end-results. When I used to work on the live sketches back in Madras/India, every single sketch had a story. I had local tea-masters give me free tea, watchmen who gave me his spare chair to sit on, a badass flower-seller who made me a makeshift chair from her carton boxes on a temporary bridge outside the railway station, a savoury shop owner who let me sit in her shop next to her-gave me water and food, little kids from school scattered all along, conversations with other street wall painters and church's a huge list. I've almost never sat through a sketch session without talking to the people local from the area and that was wonderful because I love talking to people about these spaces, to get to know little anecdotes and share the process with them. I lived in that city for twenty years and I knew the place, I knew the people: I constantly kept running in to people I knew; and yet, every time I went out to sketch in a different area, I saw the city with a new pair of eyes and through new people. Coming back to Columbus and engaging in the same process here, I met with more nonchalant reactions. Campus is a bustling space with shuffling feet and no time to stop. I didn’t exactly get the community I was seeking in this space in those initial months of my stay in the city. Winter set in and so did the first phase of disconnect and unrest. I was also living with a roommate at the time with whom I was not on good terms with and had to return to a hostile environment every night. I spent long hours in the studio making peace with all the work I had but something was still missing. I felt like I needed to throw this net out further in the sea, while afraid of drowning.

After those initial six months, I decided to seek what I had on my list of things-to-do when I arrived at Columbus: attend poetry open mics, ‘artist’ and be self-sufficient. One Wednesday night, I picked myself up and went out to the closest poetry night with a poem in my pocket. I didn’t know how this was going to pan out, but I had to try. It might have been my best decision and venture ever since I came to Columbus, hands-down (more on that later). Another day, I hopped on to the COTA bus and went Downtown, randomly walking the streets with a flask full of chai in my hand. That felt in-sync with who I was as a person: to seek encounters and spaces, to go after what I want once I knew that it was what I wanted.  I sought this in the most intimate way I knew: through art.

It’s been an intriguing journey: to explore a city I’ve moved to and making art of and in these spaces. It’s been funny too, sometimes, because I would be standing around a building and sketching it while someone from the locality would ask me why I was doing it and if I knew the history of the place. It baffled me that they would ask me, an outsider, about the history of a place that they have lived in for so long. I had the answers but I still did feel like an outsider. I was still looking at the city as an outsider,  I was still not belonging despite being a part of two different communities here. I belonged to the community, but did I feel like I belonged to the city? I wasn’t quite sure of that. So, I kept doing what I did because most often, art has a way of revealing thought processes and our seeking in repetition and constant pursuit. I must say the poetry community in Columbus was an amazing place to have started this journey. I have found some incredible people I dearly love and a community that has been nothing short of supportive and in equal parts jestful- they take the time to explain cultural contexts I don’t understand, have long discussions about the greatness of PB&J sandwiches (I’m still not convinced of that combination) or apple ‘sauce’, be there when I have features somewhere else in poetry or at art exhibitions I’m a part of, a bunch of people being willing participants in my Masters research, and of course—making fun of my accent that I didn’t think I had, but in retrospect, what was I thinking! These were people that supported my art too, and suggested places I could go out and visit, and how to possibly get there. They are people who are more than willing to drive me to places should I need it, though it’s not something I am comfortable asking of everyone as I have always been the kind of person who took care of herself (I don’t always like asking for help or feeling inadequate, especially when it lies within the fringes of coming in the way of my perception of being ‘self-sufficient’).  

Columbus has its communities intersecting intimately: I run into people from the design community at poetry readings or art shows or interesting lectures/talks around the city. Columbus is a large city with a small sense of Madras that I grew up with, while I still felt like I didn’t entirely fit in. Columbus was that pair of gloves that had me cozy and warm, though not completely comfortable. By virtue of many poets being artists themselves or organizers, by them being interested in a wide range of artistic pursuits; I found my circle expanding—and still do. I started learning new things about myself in the way other people perceived me: someone called me a ‘mover and shaker’ last month. I had no idea what that meant and when they said it meant I was good at networking, I laughed because it was the last thing I thought I was good at. I am good with people- but at networking (You should see me at professional networking events; I’m the one sipping on my lemonade in the corner of the room)? But I also realized that now, I attend events and know people there, and they know me. The recognition and friendship was validating. I realized my art was rooted in physical, tangible means that later translated to larger conversations and intangible ideas. I learnt that I was trying to combine worlds in this process. With some people, I learnt to be vulnerable and open; it’s not my usual way of being. I like being collected and together at all times, but I have a select few that I go to when I need to be my raw self. I have seen friendships and a bunch of my relationships in India drift away, and I am finally at the point where I have let it all go. I no longer hold on to toxic relationships, I extricate myself from conversations that barge into my mental space. I have started learning to take care of myself. These were all discoveries and learning.
Now, I write this as my new apartment lies like a lava-floor-obstacle-course-pit. I have moved three apartments in two years adding pieces of furniture, potted plants, photographs, memories, art and poetry with every move--life is a tad bit different now and, in this difference lies my growth; in the quality of these experiences and all the learning- I have seen myself evolve as an artist and as a person. I enjoy this transition in its occasional turbulence. But until about three weeks ago, I still felt like an outsider to the city, though not quite to all of its people.
In these live-sketches I do of the city, I learn about Columbus one neighbourhood at a time. I slowly make my way around localities; learn street names, bus routes and food joints. I do this as a traveler, as a resident of the city instead of holding on to tourist-y eyes. It makes me feel like I belong, I suppose with that last pang of being an outsider to the city still tugging away on the inside. About two or three weeks back, I went into a new neighbourhood in this exploration, to sketch a building suggested by someone at the poetry community—as I threw open the question to them on Facebook. I wanted to sketch an old, closed building in the Near East side and I had not been there before. It is an area that is facing gentrification in the city and I thought it imperative to process what was happening in ways I best knew how to. I hopped on and changed two buses and got there. I found the building and stood across the street and later, sat on a patch of grass and began sketching. About ten minutes in, I had a lady demanding questions about why I was on her yard. I hadn’t realized I was trespassing and so, I stumbled with my answers. I told her I came in to draw the building and I didn’t realise I was sitting in her property and began to move away when she asked me why I was doing what I was doing. I have had that question asked a few times in Columbus with hesitation and curiosity but none that demanded answers. The rightful questioning of the woman to know why I am doing what I was doing in her neighbourhood and space was interesting and largely protective. I loved that. As I gave her my reasons for my process, she said I could sit down where I was and keep doing what I was doing. “You do you”, she said. I had someone scream from a car, at the intersection that the building I was drawing was going to be sold, probably to the city. There were no inhibitions or pleasantries in that exchange—they spoke to me like I had to know what was going on. Minutes later, a man pushing his baby in a pram crossed the road and came up to me to talk to me and go through my work. He was an artist, too. It was a pleasant conversation in the middle of a hot day before he left. An asshole from another car scared the crap out of me by jolting me with his loud scream, and laughed in my face; which I have to say is also very reminiscent of India. The woman whose lawn I was sitting on came back to me as I was finishing up and asked me if I wanted water. I told her I had some and appreciated her gesture but I came prepared with enough water that day. I had finished sketching by then and crossed the road and stood outside the bus stop waiting for my bus to take me Downtown from where I’d go to campus, and then on- to my apartment.

As I was standing there, waiting, an elderly gentleman broke my thoughts and meekly demanded—“What did you draw? I saw you drawing. What did you draw? Show me!” I opened my sketchbook and extended it to him as he took it in his hands and thumbed it between his old, wrinkled fingers and said-- “Come in.” He didn’t wait for an answer; he didn’t even think I was going to refuse. It has been two years since anyone asked me to come in to their space like that, especially strangers. I nimbly and yet slowly, opened the door and saw two other men sitting there to whom the elderly gentleman started showing my work to. One of them was in an apron. I looked around and that’s when it hit me—I was in a barber shop. I have listened to conversations surrounding the conversations that begin here, poems about it from my friends and I was there, in a barber shop. The men there were extremely sweet and looked through my sketchbooks as I looked at the space and spoke with them. The space also strangely reminded me of the time as a child. Growing up as a gymnast, I didn’t have a say in my hairstyle; my coach did. His solution to easy training and practice sessions was a closely cropped boy-cut. You know where I got this haircut back in those days, for a good part of about five or seven years? At the local barber shop. I’d go there with my dad and get almost the same haircut he did. That space wasn’t too different from this, in Columbus. The men in Madras at the time welcomed me when I was seven. I never grew up feeling odd in spaces mostly reserved for men because I grew up in those spaces, as a girl, I never felt like an outsider in that barbershop I went to with my father. I hadn’t been to that shop with my dad in almost a decade—and now, I had re-entered one after all these years and it felt perfect, a wave of nostalgia and familiarity washing over my senses. The owner of the shop asked me if I wanted water, too—something no one in Columbus had asked me in my past two years of sketching here across the city. And suddenly I felt like an outsider no more.

I had finally slipped into Columbus: the community, art, poetry, and the city. All of it. I have slipped into  a familiar comfort I had missed the past two years.

I love and thank everyone who has been instrumental in that transition.
All my love,

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