- By melding art and science, Brandon Ballengée promotes awareness of endangered species.
- Performance anxiety is common even among the most accomplished professionals.
- Moe Brooker is rightly regarded as one of the greats of American abstract painting.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
From these waters are drawn the raw materials for scientific exploration and creative endeavor.
Brandon Ballengée: I’ve always wanted to do art and biology since I was a kid.
Brandon Ballengée holds an unusual Ph.D. It’s in Transdisciplinary Art and Science. His work centers generally on endangered species, but with a particular focus.
Ballengée: When I was in high school, the first stories started to come out about the epic decline of amphibians and I got really captivated by that. When you’re doing the science work, you try to distance yourself as much as possible when you’re in the field or in the lab and you’re just collecting data. Of course, that’s not the way human beings are. We’re not objective. That’s one part of us but there’s a whole other side. And this is the subjective side, the emotional side, the side that needs to express something about what it’s like to go to a wetland and find 90% of the frogs with these terminal deformities. It’s overwhelmingly sad. And so how do you explain that, not just through the analytic way of science, but how can you tell that story through art?
Ballengée’s ongoing project, Reliquaries, does just that. It’s a series of enlarged, stained images of terminally deformed field specimens.
Ballengée: They’re scaled in a way so that the amphibian is roughly the size of a human toddler. I don’t want to create monsters. I don’t want to generate fear, but actually empathy. There’s kind of a sense of beauty in the way that I treat the organism through this process called “clearing and staining.” That’s actually a chemical process which I use to study the development from the science standpoint. But the aesthetic is so compelling. They’re also exhibited in these kind of very loaded formats, so lighting is very important. So you’re walking into a room that’s fairly dim, and the portraits really kind of glow.
Another of his scientifically-sourced art projects, Frameworks of Absence, is a decade-long exploration of one of the most daunting realities we humans face.
Ballengée: We have a really difficult time understanding or perceiving death, let alone this idea of an entire group of organisms that are completely gone. How we do wrap our head around extinction? I’m not sure we’re hardwired to. From the artistic standpoint, I wanted to try to sort out how you could visually give form to something that is a negative, to something that is an absence.
And so, I would get these old guides that would have a depiction of a passenger pigeon. And then I would sit and ink them out. But then that dark form was just that—it was a form, it was a presence. It was not a negative; it was something new.
And then I was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg who erased a de Kooning drawing so I thought, “Well, let me try that.” So I would go around and erase these different extinct species from old prints or whatnot. But what was left was this kind of trace. It looked very ghostly, but it was still a presence.
And then one day, I just cut one of the depictions from an old book. And I held it up to the light and suddenly, there it was. I’d framed absence, and it was that simple all along. This was the way that you could kind of give form to this anti-form.
What I do is, I cut the image out of the historic artifacts. I then burn the depictions and then put the depictions in these funerary urns. And then when people end up with one of the Frameworks of Absence, they’re asked to scatter the ashes so they have their own kind of ceremony. By doing that, that action transforms you. It makes you think about what’s at stake.
When I exhibit these, the back piecing is literally glass. So what you see is that absence the shadows on the wall cast. The first time, I showed ten of these and a viewer came in. And she walked very quickly, she kind of made a quick sweep around the room. She got to probably image number seven, and then I went to greet her. But she was going so fast, seeing the exhibition. By the time I got to her, she’d turned around, and we made eye contact and we were really close, and I just saw that she was bawling, and she was just weeping. And then I thought, “Wow, when does that happen at a contemporary art exhibition?”
But such a departure from the norm is not altogether unusual for Ballengée, whose work has always challenged convention.
Ballengée: In the beginning, when I was showing work in New York, I did get a lot of criticism where people were saying, “Oh, that’s science, it’s not really art.” Or, “Oh, that’s activism, it’s not really art.” But what you’re seeing now—all over the world, really, I think—is this growing situation where people are realizing that disciplinary boundaries are very limiting because, you know, these situations, the problems are complex, and we realize that one discipline can’t solve them.
The one thing that I seriously desire with all these works is that people don’t walk away feeling hopeless, but they walk away feeling engaged. “Wow, we need to do something, and what can we do?”
And this artist / scientist / activist continues to do all he can to help remind us that, just as we contribute to the earth’s problems, so, too, can we become a part of the solutions, for all our children.
Ben Lloyd: It’s a very primal, fight or flight response to being observed.
Joann Kirchner: I don’t know that necessarily, that people are going to get over stage fright, because we’re wired for that. It’s part of our system.
Rob Kesselman: I think it needs to be talked about, and I’m the man to do it. I almost feel combative about it.
Elina Kalendarova: It’s not hopeless, I mean, I’m happy to have discovered, that it’s not hopeless, and there are ways to cope.
Philadelphia Orchestra musicians Elina Kalendarova and Rob Kesselman are breaking the long silence on a condition that affects many performers—either on stage or in life.
Kesselman: There is this fear of how, you know, how am I gonna get through this? How am I gonna play up to the level that I was in the practice room? What’s gonna happen when I’m actually out there?
And then this negative inner monologue quickly spirals into physical symptoms.
Ben Lloyd: It’s overwhelming when you’re in the throes of it. It makes thinking impossible, it’s basically a small anxiety attack. Your mouth dries up, your heart starts to pound, you feel like you have trouble breathing.
Ben Lloyd doesn’t himself suffer from stage fright, but he coaches actors who do.
And today, says music professor Joann Kirchner, performance anxiety is not limited to entertainers.
Kirchner: The pressure today is so great. I mean, even in grade school, we’re already getting our students prepared for their future careers.
AJC: And we’re also asking people to become performers who were never asked to be performers before. In the corporate world now, people need to be great in meetings, you’ve got to stand up there and deliver on your feet.
AJC: And that’s putting more pressure.
Kirchner: That’s putting more pressure, right. The expectations, I think, have been raised.
And for classical musicians like Kesselman and Kalendarova, high expectations also drove their training. For him, at the Curtis Institute of Music, for her, at the Moscow Conservatory.
Kalendarova: My teacher really wanted to show me off to his colleagues. And I would crumble, because suddenly I had to prove to them that he was great. And his remark about my never doing as well when I played for somebody else, that was his conclusion about me, that kind of stuck for a long time.
AJC: That’s harsh.
Kalendarova: That’s harsh.
AJC: Anything stick with you? ‘Cause a lot of this seems to be that this was sort of beaten into her at a young age. Have you ever analyzed where your performance anxiety came from?
Kesselman: It took me a long time to recognize that my public playing was not going to be as good as the best private playing was — it just never would, and I had to accept that that was what my level was. The key is to say, ‘okay I’m going for this ten,’ and then when you get out there on stage, you know in your mind you’re not hitting that ten. And you say, ‘heck with it, a nine and a half is gonna be okay, I’m gonna be happy with that.’ Because, otherwise, you’re gonna be miserable. And that’s been my plight, accepting that I did the best that I could at that moment, even if it was way less than I might be able to do in another moment. That has to be okay. And that’s something that’s really hard for a lot of musicians, I think.
Kesselman: It’s probably the most judgmental job you can have in the world. There’s an old saying: what’s the one thing that two musicians can agree upon? And that is the incompetence of the third. And that is, I think that’s really true. It’s true in conservatory, where we both went, a high-pressured conservatory. It’s true professionally, people who aren’t performing well are talked about constantly.
But refusing to become self conscious is, for many actors, the key to a successful performance, says Ben Lloyd.
Lloyd: What stage fright really is, is an overwhelming sense of self-awareness, what is happening to me becomes so overwhelming that you, my character, my fellow scene partner, doesn’t exist anymore. The lines that I had to memorize, the direction I got from a director, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just all about me, right? And what I’m feeling right now. And that becomes overwhelming. So what I believe is, when actors begin to think of what they’re doing as a gift, or as a service, then the attention and the focal point doesn’t become who they are.
After years of suffering the ravages of stage fright, a mindfulness meditation class radically changed Rob Kesselman’s outlook on music making.
Kesselman: My goal is to be more present for everything. I consider myself to be at the tail end of my career, so I want to make the tail end of my career as good as I can. And I think being present is very important.
For however complex stage fright feels, one simple technique can make all the difference when it comes to staying present.
Lloyd: A lot of it comes down to breathing. One of the first things that happens when we are beset by anxiety, is we stop breathing. Or, if we are breathing, like this part of ourselves, this diaphragmatic area, our bellies lock up. And it’s all like this (breathes rapidly) shallow breathing. So a big part of what we do, if we’re coaching somebody with a live presentation or anxiety around testing, is simply about ‘can you put your hand on your belly button, get your breath to drop here, just take a few breaths, just acknowledge what’s happening to you, and feel yourself breathing.’
Elina Kalendarova’s favorite breathing techniques come from a short book by a German philosopher.
Kalendarova: Breathing normally, but exhaling through resistance, on the consonant sound, like ‘S’ or ‘BR’ or something.
AJC: Show me what that looks like?
Kalendarova: For example, so you take normal breath, and then (hisses slowly) by nature, it slows down the exhalation so much that it restores the balance.
And when all else fails, there is a medical option. But though not illegal nor uncommon, drugs remain taboo for many professional performers. A combination of sedatives and/or beta blockers usually used to combat high blood pressure can help to overcome the physical symptoms of stage fright.
Kalendarova: If you take a sedative, and then you’re in danger — you’re approached by a wild, aggressive animal — you don’t get scared. But you take a beta blocker instead, and you are approached by a wild, aggressive animal, and you do get scared, but you don’t get a heart attack.
AJC: So you don’t have that dulling of the senses or that ‘I don’t really care?’
Kalendarova: No, not at all.
AJC: How about you Rob?
Kesselman: What the drugs do, is they allow me to have confidence in my hands, that I’m going to be able to — they’re not gonna shake. And that’s part of what the beta blockers do, they’re an anti-tremor. And I don’t always take them, because I don’t want to develop a dependence, physically, on them. But I freely admit that I take them, that when I need them — and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Although we are judged, ‘you are weak, you’re less than, why can’t you buck up and deal with it?’
Kesselman: That kind of thing, well I say, ‘bring it.’ ‘Cause that’s what I’ve got. I want to preserve the rest of my career, and if I need to take a beta blocker I’m going to. But the drug doesn’t make the experience joyful. I still have the freak-out two days before a performance. I still feel like ‘are you really up to this task, are you a fraud?,’ etc. So, I think the element of the meditation, and being kind to myself, and really, really surrounding myself with a loving feeling, like it’s okay, you worked hard, you have every right to feel good about this…that kind of thing. And through the meditation practice, I think it’s gonna have to be a combination of both of them.
But even with the perfect balance, most artists will likely still experience some sort of pre-show adrenaline rush.
Kirchner: There are people that believe that performance anxiety, or stage fright, is really necessary. That you need a certain amount of that in order to perform your best.
Lloyd: I do think, if you feel nothing, if there’s no special vibration that’s going on inside of you before you perform, then you probably should reexamine why you’re doing it. That sensation that you’re having, is energy that’s looking for a target. What I’m trying to help you figure out how to do, is to take that extraordinary energy, that’s just bouncing around inside of you right now, and making you feel like you’re about to throw up, and give it a target. And once I’m involved in that, then all of that like, you know, that energy that’s bouncing around gets focused and used creatively. And that’s when you can get extraordinary performances.
The key, it would seem, is to care enough to bring a performance to life but not so much as to kill it.
Moe Brooker: Paintings take on a personality. A painting begins to develop characteristics, and as you begin to move through making decisions, it accepts and rejects decisions. And the farther you go in the painting, the more it begins to say ‘I want this’ and ‘I don’t want that.’ And I tell you, it is no joke, if you decide, ‘I don’t give a damn what this painting wants, I’m gonna what I wanna do,’ you will lose a painting like that. Because the painting has a life.
When Moe Brooker’s artistic career began, more than 50 years ago, no one — not even him — would have guessed that he would become one of America’s finest abstract painters.
Brooker: I thought abstract painters were charlatans. I thought they were frauds, phonies.
For much of his early career, Brooker was a realist. His transition to abstraction was gradual.
Brooker: When my son was born, I did a series of paintings about him. But they were still semi-abstract. You could recognize shapes, you could recognize a sort of sky, but they all had bands around it that were restrictive. And that restriction was not only a question of a device for composition, it was about how I felt as a person in this country.
Brooker says that, as a black man in 1960s America, he was constantly reminded of his place in the world.
Brooker: You couldn’t find an apartment, you had to live in certain areas, and that’s all there was. Secondly, you couldn’t get a gallery in Philadelphia to take you on. They wouldn’t do it. And you would ask why, and they would say ‘well, you know, there’s probably people not interested in your work.”
Yet despite all of this adversity, Brooker was nonetheless aware that he’d been dealt a better hand than many of those around him—among them, his childhood friend, Horace Lovett.
Brooker: Horace was better than all of us. The difference is, Horace’s father had passed and Horace couldn’t go to art school. And it’s a loss. I mean, that’s what I felt, it was a loss, and I asked myself many times, ‘how many Horaces have there been?’ And I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and have the right parents that allowed me to, in fact, go on. I was not the best, but I worked hard at it.
This relentless determination helped Brooker begin to blaze his own trail.
Brooker: Every school that I’ve gone to, I was the first black person in their department. University of Virginia, I caught hell. University of North Carolina, I caught hell. Cleveland became a different situation, and when I came… It was very nice, and they treated me very nicely, but I was the first one.
Brooker’s artistic vision is strengthened by the gift of second sight, his innate ability to perceive colored energy fields around people and objects.
Brooker: And when I was younger, it used to scare me to death, but I see auras around people. That’s been incorporated, and if you look at my painting, you’ll see the sense of aura around a number of areas. I try to put auras around certain areas which give, I think, a sense of light.
This unique artistic vision was gradually strengthening his reputation, so much so that by the dawn of the new millennium, galleries in Philadelphia and New York were selling his paintings. He’d found his groove, in part, inspired by his love of jazz.
Brooker: Improvisation is a choice that’s made very quickly, with a point and a purpose in mind. A lot of people say, ‘well, I can do abstraction.’ Okay. ‘I can do jazz.’ Okay. And when you see what they come up with, they don’t have the sensibility, they don’t have the tools, they don’t have the understanding of the process that’s necessary. You’re hearing, you’re listening, you’re making a choice. Millions of choices are there, and you make one that’s just right because of what you’re hearing. Same thing goes on for me in the painting.
By any measure, Moe Brooker is now living the life of a very accomplished painter. But he’s never measured achievement in terms of fame or fortune.
Brooker: I just wanted to paint, I didn’t care about whether or not I would be successful or make money. I mean, that wasn’t something that I did. I wanted to just be able to paint, and be the best painter that there ever was.
AJC: I’m not gonna ask if you’ve become the best painter that ever was. Have you become the best painter that you could ever have been?
Brooker: I am becoming. I never thought about doing sculpture. However, sculpture was something that happened. I never thought about doing stained glass, stained glass happened. Becoming is what I insist on anyone thinking about me. I’m becoming, and will continue to become.