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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
Bill Gossman is mayor of New London, Minnesota, and a potter who knows firsthand how arts can build community. Legacy funding from a law updated in 2009 has helped spur the town’s revival. 

The arts are often good for business, and the experience of towns in rural Minnesota provides a good example.

Jenna Ross reports at the Star Tribune, “One by one, they took the stage and told their stories. A man in his 80s, leaning on a cane. A teenage girl. A retired farmer.

“ ‘Times were good for farmers in west-central Minnesota in the 1940s,’ Ed Huseby began his tale about a tractor that went rogue.

“In the audience, residents laughed, cheered and, after one man described how lung cancer cut short his wife’s life, cried. They were gathered for a Sunday afternoon ‘story show,’ organized by the owner of the Flyleaf Book Shop. The one-page program didn’t mention funding from the Legacy Amendment. But like all shows onstage at the Little Theatre — and most arts events in this small but growing city two hours west of Minneapolis — that money played a key role.

“Legacy funding cuts the cost of renting the theater to $100. It pays the part-time salary of the manager who greeted audience members and pulled closed the curtains. Soon, it’ll fund a new projector and screen. …

“New London, like small cities across Minnesota, has felt the influx of dollars from the Legacy Amendment, passed a decade ago. …

“ ‘In the Twin Cities, there’s a pretty established arts infrastructure,’ said Sue Gens, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board. Now Legacy grants are helping build that in communities across the state, she said. …

“In New London, pop. 1,355, such grants have funded a summer music festival. A 10-foot-tall sculpture that stands near the Middle Fork Crow River. And a wood-fired kiln in Bill Gossman’s backyard.

“Gossman is a potter, one who whistles while he digs his thumbs into a piece of porcelain clay. He’s also the mayor. …

“In 2010, Gossman won a $7,000 Legacy grant to add a large new chamber onto his kiln, which is fueled by firewood, giving his pots, vases and vessels an earthy glow. Last month, as they do each year, potters from across the state trekked to Gossman’s place. They drank coffee, chopped wood and packed the massive chamber with hundreds of their pieces. …

“When Gossman took office in 2008, [the] recession had weakened a local economy in flux with the consolidation of family farms. The grocery store had closed, and the hardware store was about to. For-sale signs hung in Main Street windows.

“Today, not a single empty storefront remains. Galleries and gift stores line the compact downtown. …

“A Star Tribune analysis of Legacy dollars shows that from fiscal 2010 to 2017, the biggest recipients of funds via the state and regional arts boards was the Guthrie Theater. …

“Outstate Minnesota has received its fair share of Legacy dollars [largely] because of the 11 regional arts councils, established in the 1970s, that broadened the reach of public arts funding. …

“Speaking at rural conferences across the country, [John Davis, executive director of Lanesboro Arts,] always mentions Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, which other places regard as a model. …

“But the amendment isn’t perfect, Davis said. He believes that some arts funds should be set aside for rural capital projects, as many small cities struggle with infrastructure challenges in the wake of waning tax revenue and cuts to Local Government Aid.

“ ‘Right now an organization could get money to host a ballet, but if their roof is caving in … they can’t access it,’ Davis said. ‘I think that was something that just out of the gate was a structural flaw.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: http://www.mlive.com/
Seitu Jones, a St Paul, Minnesota, artist who teaches urban food systems at the University of Minnesota is behind the community meal that won an art award.

Minnesota is home to many cutting-edge artistic endeavors, and the one described by Jim Harger at mlive.com is no exception. It’s neighborhood picnic as work of art.

“The ArtPrize Nine jurors — each of them experts in art — went for a neighborhood picnic in awarding the $200,000 juried grand prize for ArtPrize Nine.

” ‘Heartside Community Meal,’ an outdoor meal for 250 guests in Heartside Park on Sept. 23, was entered by Seitu Jones, a Saint Paul, Minnesota, artist who teaches urban food systems at the University of Minnesota.

” ‘This is a project that came out of love,’ said Jones after the award was announced on Friday, Oct. 6.

“The meal, served on a 300-foot-long table in Heartside Park, was aimed at engaging residents of the mixed-income neighborhood with each other over a table of locally produced foods. …

” ‘Seitu’s work speaks to some of the key issues in America now,’ [juror Gaetane] Verna said. ‘Access to food, access to community and people being able to create a space of conversation, exchange and synergy for everyone. He speaks to what is important in the context of the “now” in his practice, not just the ability to paint or draw.’

“Juror Scott Stulen, director and president of Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, nominated ‘Heartside Community Meal,’ saying he was struck by the event, where

‘people were sitting down and talking to people they would never talk to otherwise.’ …

“Inviting residents of condos and luxury apartments to dine with homeless residents who live beneath overpasses was a challenge for both groups, Jones said.

“Guests, both rich and poor, were moved by the experience, said Jones, who declared, ‘Of course this is art!’ when asked about the artistic nature of the big meal.”

More here.

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Map: Nations Online Project
Fergus Falls didn’t need much money from the National Endowment for the Arts to create both economic benefits and constructive conversation across the political divide.

As Victoria Stapley-Brown wrote recently at the Art Newspaper, the arts benefit communities in many ways, and in rural America, a little funding can go a long way.

“A grant of $25,000 is not even a drop in the bucket of the US federal government’s spending, around $3.5 trillion per year. But it was able to effect visible change in Fergus Falls, a small rural community in Minnesota with a population of 13,000, which received $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the government agency that funds art and culture across every congressional district in the nation, in 2011. …

“With the $25,000 NEA grant, the St Paul, Minnesota-based arts non-profit, Springboard for the Arts, which calls itself ‘an economic and community development organization for artists and by artists,’ opened an office in Fergus Falls and was able to launch a multi-year cultural project. Since 2011, the organisation has been given a total of $145,000 in NEA grants — but has also received over $1.2m in funding from private donors, such as the McKnight Foundation. …

“The project explores ‘how artists can be a part of rural economies and rural communities,’ … to encourage young people to stay in the town and see it as a viable place to make a living and raise their families …

“Artists from other communities working across all media, from the visual arts to music to film-making, have also come to Fergus Falls for the Hinge Arts Residency, a programme that has hosted 45 artists for one to three months. These artists live in apartments on the property of the formerly disused hospital complex, which has spurred a local conversation about preservation and the use of historic buildings in the town, and local politics. …

“The artists-in-residence have carried out their own work during their residencies, which often involve the local community, such as the folk and punk musician Shannon Murray’s research into music and Minnesota working class history. They have also shown work in empty storefronts and organised community art projects, such as casting architectural elements of disused buildings, and giving art classes to local children.” More here.

Hat Tip: Arts Journal.

Photo: Rick Abbott
Kirkbride Art & History Weekend at the former Fergus Falls State Hospital Complex, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Photo: Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership
Hmong dance festival in southwest Minnesota. A Community Development Investments grant from ArtsPlace aims to give newcomers a voice.

Never underestimate the power of art and cultural events to improve lives.

As Amy Evans reports in the magazine Shelterforce (published by the National Housing Institute), the community development field has come to recognize that the arts are key to integrating diverse populations.

Evans discusses the issue with the McKnight Foundation’s Vickie Benson.

“More and more, it seems that arts and culture are being perceived as essential to the core fabric of what builds and nourishes communities — and that gives Benson enormous hope. ArtPlace America, a decade-old collaboration of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions, has been one of the driving forces for that shift, Benson says, by insisting that the arts must be in conversation with other sectors, whether community development, housing, or health.

“In Minnesota, the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) has joined that conversation. With the support of a community development investment [CDI] grant from ArtPlace America, which will provide $3 million in funding over three years, SWMHP is exploring ways of building arts and culture into its operations.

“It’s a bold step for the organization, and one that Benson wholeheartedly applauds.

” ‘Music, dance, or visual art are forms of expression within many cultures. And just the weaving together of these many, many varied cultural traditions is a natural path for people to communicate with each other,’ says Benson. ‘That is what I hope to see, that communities will understand the importance of arts and culture not as an add-on but as a core piece of community development.’ …

“A couple of decades ago, [the future of the southwest Minnesota town of Worthington] future looked bleak. The farm crisis had taken its toll; the town’s population dropped from 10,243 in 1980 to 9,980 in 1990 as people left the area in search of better opportunities.

“The expansion of the meat processing industry in Worthington turned this trend around. JBS Swift and Co., a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., established what would become its principal plant in Worthington. The impact was far-reaching in the area, propping up small businesses like Smith Trucking Inc. and local hog producers.

“In 1989, increases in productivity led to an additional shift at the plant, attracting workers from literally around the world. … The so-called foreign-born population of Worthington jumped in parallel from 3.7 percent of the total population in 1990 to more than 15 percent in 2000.

“Mike Woll remembers when that shift took place. ‘Worthington’s history of immigration dates back to when I was in high school, when we had some early Lao immigrants,’ Woll recalls. ‘The community became incredibly diverse.’

“Walk into Woll’s high school today and some 50 dialects can be heard, from Central American to Southeast Asian to East African. Downtown on 10th Street, Woll says, ‘you’ll see people from all over the world. Myanmar, Ethiopia, Laos, all sorts of Latin American influence. It’s a remarkable place.’ …

“Woll hopes that one outcome of Worthington’s participation in the CDI Initiative will be preservation of one of the community’s strongest assets.

“ ‘Diversity brings challenges, but it’s put Worthington ahead of the curve. It gives us a broader scope of the world,’ Woll says. He is proud to know that his college-aged son, who grew up in Worthington, can take living in a multicultural environment for granted, even more so than his peers from places like Minneapolis and Chicago. But making space for multiculturalism to truly thrive means giving voice to communities that often haven’t had a seat at the table. Woll hopes that the CDI Initiative will help expand leadership roles to segments of the population who have so much to say, but haven’t had the platform to say it.

“ ‘If not for a program like [ArtPlace], those cultures do get lost,’ Woll says. ‘Having a bit of institutional strength and a financial boost from ArtPlace can help take what are challenges and turn them into positives.’ ”

More at Shelterforce, here.

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Photo: Star Tribune
Ojibwe poet Jim Northrup

I have been trying to learn something about tribal cultures in the United States. I liked Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribal member Sherman Alexie’s Thunder Boy (a charming picture book for young children) and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (an early, painful collection of short stories). Now I am reading some Native American poetry.

One poet, Jim Northrup, recently died. Here is a beautiful obit by Jana Hollingsworth in the Duluth News Tribune.

“Jim Northrup was a ‘tough man’ who taught his eldest sons to survive in the elements by living in a tepee on the Fond du Lac Reservation for several years, when money and jobs were scarce.

“But it was more than physical survival, said his son, Matthew, on Tuesday, the day after his father died from cancer-related complications. He taught them how to be strong in a world that didn’t treat everyone the same, he said, using humor — and education — as tools.

” ‘ “When you have really nothing else,” he said to me a lot, “you have your humor,” Matthew said. ” ‘When you grow up poor on the rez and when you grow up a lower class in society, you realize that.’

“Northrup, an award-winning writer of books, columns, plays and poetry — and a prominent member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — died [in July]. He was 73.

“Northrup was a storyteller, known for his stark and honest writing about his experience as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam and his early years at a federal boarding school. He was funny and pointed in his writings about everyday life on the reservation, politics and change in Indian Country. He wrote as a way to heal himself from some of the trauma he experienced during the war, he said earlier this year.

” ‘I knew my poetry was being used in vets’ groups to help people open up (and) maybe even write their own poetry as part of their healing,’ he told the News Tribune in March. ‘It worked for me, so I hoped it helped (others).’ ”

More here, where you can hear Northrup read a poem in Ojibwe about passing along the culture. Read the whole obit. It’s really lovely. I hated to cut it.

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What a weekend for entertainment! On one day, we saw the musical The Wild Party (LaChiusa version) at  Moonbox Productions in Boston. (Very good.) On another, we attended a flamenco concert in a church.

The flamenco headliner, guitarist Juanito Pascual, was joined by flamenco percussionist and singer José Moreno and singer and dancer Bárbara Martinez. Such exuberant and mournful fun! It reminded us of fado concerts we’ve attended, although that happy-sad tradition is Portuguese and flamenco is Spanish.

The music included pieces that go back centuries plus Pascual’s own compositions, which are a fascinating blend of old and new. Challenging at times, but pretty intriguing. One was dedicated to the person back home in Minnesota “who persuaded my mother to let me take guitar lessons.”

An article in the Concord Journal notes that Pascual,  who is just beginning a 15-city tour to promote his latest CD, “skillfully weaves such influences as Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Bach and many others into his original compositions.” The Journal also quotes Boston Globe critic Steve Morse, who admires how Pascual “combines vivid colors, rich imagination and a yearning, never satisfied mastery of his art.”

Even in pieces without Moreno’s percussion support, Pascual’s virtuoso performance sounded like he was simultaneously playing two guitars and a set of bongos (flamenco involves slapping the wood as well has playing the strings). Very dramatic.

More at the Concord Journal, here. And you can hear samples of the music at all three artists’ websites.

Photo: www.juanitopascual.com

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