As if by Fate
- Shawn Colvin has dedicated her life to music.
- Masatoshi Izumi’s family’s relationship with stone goes back hundreds of years.
- Erika Sánchez writes for teens who are complex and confused like she was at their age.
Masatoshi Izumi is an internationally renowned sculptor. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. He was the principal collaborator with Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) on the acclaimed artist’s stone sculptures and has created artwork for the Japanese prime minister’s residence.
Born in 1938 on the Japanese island of Shikoku into a family of master stone carvers, Izumi began apprenticing as a stonemason at age 15 and founded his own atelier in 1964. In 1966 he was recruited by famed Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi to work on the iconic Black Sun sculpture, commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum. Izumi worked with Noguchi until the latter’s death in 1988, picking up many of the artist’s aesthetic philosophies. Working in granite and basalt, Izumi’s work juxtaposes the natural texture of the stone with areas of fine polish.
Izumi lives in the town of Mure on Shikoku, where he runs his family’s quarry and stonecutting business and coordinates the Isamu Noguchi Foundation of Japan.
Erika Sánchez is an award-winning poet and young adult novelist. She was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who loses her older sister. It won the 2018 Tomás Rivera Award for best Mexican American children’s book.
Sánchez grew up in Illinois as the bilingual child of Mexican immigrants. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at Chicago, lived in Madrid on a Fulbright Scholarship, and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Mexico. Her poems have appeared in many prestigious literary journals, including the Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. She released her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, in 2017.
From 2012 to 2015 Sánchez was the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas. She has also contributed nonfiction articles to Time, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. She is a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the creative spark and the human spirit.
On this episode of Articulate, Shawn Colvin has dedicated her life to music, but she’s no longer prepared to give away her happiness for a song.
Shawn Colvin: I think the drama falls away in your old age and a lot of the earlier songs were kinda fueled by some personal dramas, you know?
AJC: You need some more personal dramas.
Colvin: I don’t want anymore personal drama.
The latest link in an ancient lineage of stone sculptures, Masatoshi Izumi has become a master of his craft, in part by respecting his material.
Masatoshi Izumi: I make things from stone, but as I’m doing it, I want to treasure what is living inside the stone, and not harm it in any way.
And, Erika Sánchez writes for young adults who are just as she was at their age, complex and confused.
Erika Sánchez: I felt very misunderstood. I had a very rich inner life that I didn’t know how to explain to anyone.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Shawn Colvin mastered her instrument while no one was listening.
(“Get Out of This House,” 1996)
Go jump in a lake
Go right up the hill
Get out of this house
Shawn Colvin: I worked hard on my guitar playing, mostly because I played so many bars where people didn’t listen. I thought, what’s an element I can add to this guitar and vocal thing that might get their attention?
I spent 29 years trying to save my soul
It’s been 11 more down in the whole
Fighting to be heard caused Colvin to strain her vocal chords so badly at age 24, that she was forced to take a break from playing music altogether, which in turn, led her to confront her seething addiction to alcohol.
Colvin: They were a product of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and realizing that I had a story to tell. You know, when you’re mired in addiction and you know, fog, some people write great stuff. Who am I to say? But not me.
AJC: Did you ever write songs drunk?
Colvin: I moved to San Francisco. I moved to The Bay Area and I was drunk all the time. This was for a very short period of time. I guess I was about 18, 19 years old, maybe. And I did start a song called “Ricochet in Time”, which is about putting in a punch card. I mean, I had a straight job. And if you listen to that one, it’s, you know, it’s not exactly bright and cheering, and then I finished it later, after I’d been in recovery. So, I had the seeds of wanting to express something and so I did write a little something when I was in my cups, as they say, but not much.
Shawn Colvin won her first Grammy in 1991, but her greatest commercial triumph would come seven years and two albums later, with A Few Small Repairs and its smash-hit single, “Sunny Came Home.”
(“Sunny Came Home”1996)
Sunny came home to her favorite room
Sunny sat down in the kitchen
And she opened a book and a box of tools
Sunny came home with a mission
She says days go by
I’m walking on a wire
And I close my eyes and fly out of my mind
Into the fire
But with the birth of her daughter, Caledonia, in 1998, writing a follow-up proved difficult. Motherhood, she says, was overwhelming.
Colvin: I didn’t know how to write about it. It was all-consuming. That was all that was in my life but I felt like I should be writing this, like, lovely lullaby-esque poetry and I was a terrified, doubtful, tired person.
AJC: The song, “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now,” a preemptive apology to her daughter for future mistakes, evoked a darker tone of the resulting album, 2001’s A Whole New You.
(“I’ll Say I Am Sorry Now,” 2001)
For all that I am by
And hard as we try
The bough breaks and the cradle falls
For everything I do
That will tear at you
Let me say I’m sorry now
AJC: Does it ever feel like pressure, the fact that you were so, always so open in your songs about who you were and how you saw the world?
Colvin: No, it doesn’t feel like pressure at all. I’ve just always been a person who didn’t hide. I mean, I suppose there are things but I felt there was, in our house, sort of, we were the typical 50’s family and I always felt that there was too much pressure on keeping up appearances and I just wanted flat out honesty and you know, let it all hang out. I hate small talk, you know. It’s like let’s get to the heart of what’s going on. And I found in my life that what I’ve read and heard from people that’s brutally honest has helped me the most through my own challenges and struggles. It’s a gift to people.
In 2012, Shawn Colvin published a memoir, Diamond In The Rough, which candidly recanted her experiences with addiction, depression, failed relationships and an imperfect upbringing. The process of writing it, she says, was healing but the healing is never finished.
AJC: Do you ever get over your family, do you think?
AJC: No mental therapy, no mental recovery, no amount of anything is ever going to get you passed what happened early on.
Colvin: I don’t think so. I think what you do, you mature out of it. You, I don’t think you totally get over it. I have a situation in my life right now that has to do with a member of my family and I thought I was over this issue and I’m clearly not. Something triggered the discomfort and the wound, if you will. But we don’t have, again, it’s the drama. And you know, regarding my remaining parent especially, my mother, get over it. Get over it. Life’s too short. You know, I know her limitations. I know what we don’t get along about. I know what we do get along about, and it’s time to just get along, you know? And that doesn’t mean that I don’t have feelings that are complicated, but you deal with them. You don’t have to express every feeling anymore or react.
Shawn Colvin still minds her daily life for material, but finds that lately, she has much less patience for the explosive emotions that fueled much of her earlier work.
Colvin: I think the drama falls away in your old age and a lot of the earlier songs were kind of fueled by some personal dramas, you know?
AJC: Well, you need some more personal drama.
Colvin: I don’t want any more personal drama. So, I’ve taken to writing about characters that I’ve seen in movies on television and books, personally. Not a lot but that’s where I find that I’m going.
These days, Colvin’s relationship with music continues to evolve and despite a discography full of her own great songs, she’s never shied away from covering other people’s.
(“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” 1994)
Purple clover, Queen Anne’s lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
I don’t remember what I was thinking of
You might be spoiling me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
More than 40 years into her career in music, Shawn Colvin still knows what it is to be a fan.
Colvin: We all have soundtracks to our lives and there’s a line in one of my songs people love called, it says, “If there were no music, “I would not get through.” That’s what music has meant. It’s been a healing force to me from all the music I loved and still loved and listen to–– to learning how to play and sing, having my guitar at the foot of the bed of my whole adolescence and well, up ’til now and what it has done for my lack of peace of mind, my depressions, my anxiety, my insecurities. So, if I’m the soundtrack to somebody’s life, what does that mean? You know, what have I done for them? If I’ve done anything close to what was done for me, you know, in terms of the soundtracks of my life, what better compliment can you get?
(“The Nut Tree,” 2018)
Had a little nut tree
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear
The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me
And all was because of my
Little nut tree
I skipped over water
I skipped over sea
And all the birds in the air
Could not catch me
Masatoshi Izumi is perhaps Japan’s greatest living sculptor. When it was time to make additions to the imperial chapel, when a world-renowned sculptor was in search of a partner, and when the Prime Minister of Japan needed sculptures for his residence, there was but one choice.
Masatoshi Izumi: I feel that stones are alive. They have souls. I feel that from the stones themselves but also, it is part of Japanese culture to treasure stones, to learn from stones. It’s part of our culture to love and revere nature, and stones are central to nature.
And so, too, are stones essential to the Izumi family legacy. Masatoshi Izumi was born on the island of Shikoku in 1938 into a long line of master craftsmen.
Izumi: This quarry behind me has been in my family for over 150 years. It has some of the finest granite in all of Japan. My first memories are being carried my stone cutters. I was raised by stone cutters and it was natural for me to think of myself as a stone cutter. I began practicing as a stone mason when I was about 15. For two years, I learned how to chisel the stone, how to polish it. I learned the joy, the fascination of splitting stone at that time.
Izumi soon developed into a very fine craftsman. Then in 1964, he met the celebrated Japanese-American artist, Isamu Noguchi. Two years later, Noguchi recruited him to work on the monumental granite sculpture, Black Sun. Initially, Izumi brought raw skill. Noguchi, an artistic vision.
Izumi: He was seeking to make heavy stones look light, hard stones look soft. Immobile stones look like they were in motion. I learned through him that approach to the stone. Isamu Nogachi often used to say to me that there were three things about me that were good. One was that I didn’t go to art school. The fact that I didn’t speak English. And the fact that I loved stone. He said, “That is why I want to study stone with you, “together.”
Izumi and Noguchi remained close collaborators up ’til Noguchi’s death in 1988. Their time together saw Izumi transform from a craftsman into an artist. Today, Izumi’s sculptures are highly covenant and widely exhibited works of art.
Izumi: You have this natural stone surface that is thousands of years old. It was shaped by nature, by the salt wind, by water. And then you have this modern surface that is polished. By juxtaposing them, I think that brings out that beauty for us to see. The beauty that is in the stone. It allows us to see it and be more aware of it. I want to treat the stone, even when it is removed from the Earth, as something alive. I make things from stone, but as I’m doing it, I want to treasure what is living inside the stone. And not harm it in any way.
Now 80 years of age, Masatoshi Izumi continues to take his work very seriously indeed, and himself, less so.
Izumi: Usually, I do not think of myself as a sculptor, but when I realize, oh, maybe if it was not for me, this could not have been done, that it would not exist. At those moments, I think of myself, maybe as a sculptor. Those are the moments when I realize that it is not my power that made this possible. It is some other power working through me that made it possible for this to happen.
Erika Sánchez is not, as the title of her National Book Award finalist and New York Times’ Bestselling Book for Young Adult Readers declares, The Perfect Mexican Daughter. Like her protagonist, Julia, Sánchez is snarky, daring, and smart. She’s determined to have an impact on the world, while not forgetting those whose sacrifices made her extraordinary, if sometimes confusing American existence possible.
Erika Sánchez: I try to honor the parents in the book. I thought it was important for me to show their humanity and to show that they’re, you know, individuals with back stories and sometimes we don’t see that when we’re kids. We don’t understand that our parents are flawed people who have endured, you know, trauma.
The daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, Sánchez grew up in the working class down of Cicero, Illinois. Her mother worked in a factory. Her grandmother was illiterate, but writing beckoned and Sánchez seized it. Demanding time alone with books and stories and an independence unusual to her culture.
Sánchez: I felt very misunderstood. I had a very rich inner life that I didn’t know how to explain to anyone.
AJC: Even your mom. Your mom would get paranoid when the door was closed, right?
Sánchez: She didn’t like it, no, no. In Mexican culture, it’s not okay for you to be closed off and be away from your family and so that created a lot of tension for us. But yeah, I’ve always been different and I think that’s what had triggered the writing.
AJC: And it’s all about anger.
AJC: You’re a great advocate for us. And people are not allowed to be angry anymore, you know?
Sánchez: No! And why not? There’s so much to be angry about. I’m so mad all the time But I think what’s important is how to use that anger and not to let it consume you and I think that young people, they should be given the permission to be angry sometimes. It’s hard to be a young person and I think some people didn’t like that about my character because she’s just so off at the world and she’s kind of unlikeable at times. I agree, she is unlikeable, but why? You know, and why is it that male protagonists are allowed to be flawed and all these things but when a brown girl acts in a similar way, people are really put off by it?
Sánchez gained early recognition as a blogger and as a poet, but building her career, she says, took time. There were the jobs she took that she never wanted. There were long stretches of frustration. Throughout it all, Sánchez never lost sight of her good fortune.
Sánchez: My family was incredibly poor in Mexico, just desperately poor. It formed me. It’s really shaped how I see the world. I’m really, I’m conscious of class. I’m conscious of money. Now that I’m living very comfortably, it’s an adjustment now. I have to allow myself to live well and be okay with it. There’s a lot of guilt that one must tackle.
But happiness has never come easy to this author who’s made no secret of her mental health struggles. In her essays, poems, and stories, Sánchez writes openly about them. In her conversations with young readers, she reassures.
Sánchez: People have this idea that you’re crazy if you have a mental illness and I am really tired of that. And so that’s part of the reason I wrote my novel. I wanted young people to know that it’s okay to be mentally ill and that it’s okay to ask for help.
In 2017, Erika Sánchez released two books long in the making. The novel and a critically acclaimed book of poetry, Lessons on Expulsion. Both are built out of the stuff of Sánchez’s life. Both are proudly unapologetic.
(Excerpt from Lessons on Expulsion,“Crossing,” 2017)
In Chicago, we live in basements— the rattle
of heaters, jaundice paint.
The smell of beans, boiling, breaking
their skins. Everything fried up
in pig grease.
The roaches make nests in our toys.
One makes its way inside my shoe
and comes out in school.
inside my brother’s ear to start a home
until my mother drowns it out with alcohol.
I exist because you see me.
You will not work like us. You will not work like a donkey,
my mother says
in factory heat, the murmur
“Be honest,” says Sánchez, “be who you are and speak freely of it. “Our lives,” she suggests, “are best lived in the light. “Our futures are not fixed.”
Sánchez: Identity is fluid and we change and we transform and I think that to say that we have one label is, you know, that’s not accurate at all. I contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman said. We all do.