anna brones

writer + artist + producer

Posts Tagged ‘women

Five Lessons on Art and Creativity from Women Artists

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“Habits gradually change the face of one’s life as time changes one’s physical face; & one does not know it.”

-Virginia Woolf, diary entry, April 13, 1929

This Virginia Woolf quote is printed in the first pages of Mason Currey‘s book Daily Rituals: Women at Workan exploration of how creative minds get to work.

The book is a follow up to Currey’s first book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and is a concerted effort to focus on women artists and in the process, as well as offer up some sense of guidance to readers who might be struggling with their own creative practice. Sometimes, in order to do the work, it’s helpful to know how the people who came before you did theirs.

There are 143 different women in the book, from writers to fashion designers to choreographers. Women artists have—as many women artists still do—experience a particular set of battles when it comes to expressing their creativity. This shines through in the book, and encourages an even greater sense of respect for the creative work that these women were able to produce.

“Most grew up in societies that ignored or rejected women’s creative work, and many had parents or spouses who vigorously opposed their attempts to prioritize self-expression over the traditional roles of wife, mother, and homemaker,” writes Currey. “A number of them had children and faced excruciating choices in balancing the needs of their dependents with their own ambitions. Virtually all of the, confronted sexism among their audiences and among the gatekeepers to professional success—the editors, publishers, curators, critics, patrons, and other tastemakers who, over and over, just happened to find men’s work superior. And this does not even take into account the woman artist’s internal obstacles, the various species of anger, guilt, and resentment that come with forcing the world to make space for you and your achievements.”

I like both of Currey’s books because they get to the heart of what is essential to the person’s creative practice. But as a woman, Daily Rituals: Women at Work particularly resonates, and every time I pick it up I feel like I get something new from it. In fact, it is the kind of book that you can turn into its own daily ritual, reading one entry with your morning cup of coffee.

Inspired by the book, I asked Currey if I could create a few papercuts based off of some of the women he had profiled. He chose the women, and I in turn worked to figure out the main “lesson” that Currey had documented, and that the rest of us could take to heart. These “lessons” are by no means the one takeaway from these women, but I think that they are lessons that can resonate for all of us.

Commit to your craft

Creativity requires work, and no one understood this better than Coco Chanel. Born into poverty, she ended up building an iconic fashion empire, the result of an incredible commitment to her craft.

Welcome dissatisfaction

When we are satisfied with our work, there is nothing to push us forward, something that choreographer Martha Graham knew well. Despite a lifetime of achievements and recognition, Graham was driven by what Currey calls a “chronic dissatisfaction.” We want to be able to revel in our work, to enjoy the process. But a little dissatisfaction will always help to challenge us to continue to evolve in our creative practice.

 

Prepare intensely

Even when creative work flows, when we hit that stride that’s somewhere between magical and mystical, it is on the back of countless hours of preparation. If we don’t lay the ground work, we can’t let go and let serendipity take over. Nina Simone spent countless hours not just practicing, but understanding the spaces where she played. She would spend the afternoon before a show in a music hall, to get an understanding of where people would sit, how close to the stage they would be, what the lighting would be like, where the microphones would be placed. Simone took in every single detail, so that “by the time I got on stage I knew exactly what I was doing.”

 

Be relentlessly curious

As Currey writes in his book, Susan Sontag “succeeded, in large degree, thanks to her seemingly boundless energy.” That energy led to the consumption of books, film, conversations—essentially an insatiable curiosity of everything that was around her. That curiosity helped to shape her world, and her broad amount of references. If we stay curious, we can do nothing but keep learning.

Use art as relief

Art helps us to process, to heal, and who better to exemplify this than Yayoi Kusama. She checked herself into the Tokyo mental hospital in 1977 and she still lives there today, continually creating art as a way to fight her pain, anxiety, and fear. As she calls it, “art medicine.” A reminder that no matter where we are in our lives, we can all tap into this restorative element of art making.

Want to win a copy of Daily Rituals: Women at Work?

In honor of Women’s History Month, I am giving away a couple of copies away. To enter to win, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be pulling two names at random and announcing them in my next monthly installment of Creative Fuel.

Written by Anna Brones

March 31, 2020 at 09:35

Lessons from Making 100 Papercut Portraits of 100 Women

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Two years ago I set out to make 100 papercut portraits of inspiring women, calling it Women’s Wisdom Project.

100 is a lot. But it’s also very little. 
Making 100 portraits is a large endeavor. There’s a lot of work that went into creating this series.

But the number 100 is minuscule compared to how many inspiring, insightful women have come before us, are around us today, and who will lead us tomorrow. What do we lose when we disregard their stories? When we don’t give them a platform?

To me, these have become essential questions as I have worked on this series. Our stories carry power, so do our questions.

Life is made up of complexity and nuance
History, stories, and wisdom are complex and nuanced, in stark contrast to the simplicity of my medium’s black and white nature. We do not live in this simplified duality. Our lives are messy, gritty, chaotic.

Each of these papercuts has involved quotes, and I have also constantly been reminded of what we lose when we only focus on tiny snippets of what someone once said. After all, quotes are simplified, clean versions of otherwise complex stories. Not to mention how many quotes are misattributed, or entirely fabricated.

It is important to do our homework. To not take everything at face value. Certainly, there is power in a condensed statement of wisdom. But there is always so much more behind.

I hope this work sparks a conversation, that it is a springboard for learning more, not just about women in history, but about the stories of women around us.

You need a support team
We often view art as the work of an individual. We have a cultural vision of the lone, struggling, tortured artist, one who uses their medium to work through their pain and emotions. But art doesn’t only come out of pain, and it’s certainly not created in a vacuum.

Creativity can require solitude, but it also needs collaboration, and it certainly needs support, some emotional scaffolding if you will. If you are going to embark on a creative journey, you need people to love and support you, to cheer you on when you can’t cheer on yourself.

We move forward together.

We have so much to learn and so much share
The word “wisdom” can feel loaded. Something that’s unattainable, something that requires a lifetime to achieve. And yet as I have asked women where they have gotten memorable pieces of wisdom, it is often from the people closest to them. A parent, a sibling, a friend, a teacher.

It is perhaps natural that we look to changemakers and leaders for guidance. After all, these are the people who have a fantastic and beautiful ability to distill the human experience into bits of understanding, be it through words, through pictures, through film, through speeches. But most often, the answers that we seek are nearby. They are held by people close to us. Available just by asking.

If so much wisdom is carried in those around us, imagine how much lies with ourselves? How much do we have to offer?

Life is a series of asking questions
There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we’ll never know. Every time I have sat down to research another woman to profile for this project, it has led me to many other stories, many other threads. It is physically impossible for me to pursue all of them, just as it is physically impossible for us to have a grasp of everything around us.

We can’t read every book, we can’t watch every film, we can’t keep up on every current event, we can’t have a deep understanding of every moment in history. But what we can do is to constantly ask questions.

We can sustain the curiosity to continually drive us to ask questions. This is what creates progress. It’s what keeps us alive.

The Anonymous and the Untitled have power
I debated a lot over the 100th piece in the series. Who would it be? What wisdom did I want to showcase?

Several years ago, my mother and I were at an art museum, and I started paying attention to the number of “anonymous” labels. In an exhibit devoted to folk art, there were several quilts, some of them attributed to the artist, but many of them by “anonymous”—the stories of their creators (most likely women) lost to history. The same was true in a gallery with pieces of Native American art. Stunning pieces of art and craftsmanship, simply with “anonymous” on the label below.

#100 in Women’s Wisdom Project is therefore devoted to exactly that: the unheard, the unseen, the unrepresented, and the stories, wisdom, and power that they have carried, do carry, and will carry. Let us all have the wisdom to pay attention and listen.

The Women’s Wisdom Project is up at Vashon Center for the Arts March 6-29. 2020.

A version of this post appeared in my monthly newsletter Creative Fuel

Written by Anna Brones

March 6, 2020 at 10:28

Anna Frost

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“If I trip and fall, I want to be able to jump up, brush off the dust and set off to fly again.”

-Anna Frost

Throughout working on Women’s Wisdom Project, I have been reminded that wisdom is most often passed to us by the people we are closest to—a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a friend.

This profile is about just that.

A good friend of mine Sarah Menzies had recommended that I reach out to Anna Frost for a Women’s Wisdom Project Q&A. A professional runner originally hailing from New Zealand, Frost has built a life out of adventure and challenges. She has a long list of accomplishments in the trail running world that have earned her global respect. For Frost, running provides a sense of connection, to nature, to community, and to herself.

I was touched by the short film Frosty, which documents Frost as she approaches motherhood. That connection that she feels through running becomes the stage for passing the baton of wisdom. As she puts it in our Q&A, “I want to encourage her, as my mother encouraged me to spread my wings and fly.”

Her own connection to adventure, nature, and movement is one she seeks to pass along, not just to her own daughter, but others. She does so through her organization Sisu Girls, which works to encourage “sisu” in girls (and boys) through sport and adventure and by showcasing strong, healthy and positive role models. Sisu is a Finnish word, that Frost defines as “Determination and persistence in the face of adversity.” It’s a concept Frost believes strongly in, both as something she embraces herself, but also to cultivate in others. Check out her TEDx talk on raising adventurous children.

Thank you to Frost for taking time to answer a few questions related to wisdom, the sport she loves, and motherhood.

What does wisdom mean to you?

Something that you gain through experience, learning from your mistakes, falling and getting back up again time and time again.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

My Mum. To have high expectations, to spread my wings and fly, to say yes to love and life.

When did you start running and when did you know that’s what you wanted to dedicate yourself to?

I was always active and in the outdoors. It is where I learned life lessons, where I find my energy, where I feel the most at ease. Running was just a natural progression of my passion to explore the outdoors.

What does running give you that you can’t get anywhere else?

It gives me a huge sense of freedom, clarity and calm.

Gender inequality impacts every profession. What inequalities have you experienced in the trail running world and how have you worked to change them?

The sport has been around for a long time and therefore has underlying inequalities. However, there are a lot of people doing a lot of work to demand equality in our sport. From race directors to athletes, I personally have stood up to organisations and demanded equal prizes for equal finishers.

How do you see the state of women’s sports right now? Why is it important to you that we support them?

It is awesome and so inspiring to see more and more women competing at all levels. It is important to support all runners – male and female. To encourage everyone to have a go. The beauty of running is that we all stand on the same start line together, we all run the same course and we all (try to) get to the same finish time. That is equality.

You recently became a mother. I want to ask you how that has changed your relationship to your body and your sport (which also is your profession), but I also want to acknowledge that this is a very gendered interview question. We so rarely see men being asked “how has being a father impacted your professional life?” There are physical reasons for that of course, but also cultural expectations that are put on mothers. So I guess what I really am asking is: what changes have you experienced becoming a mother, both in how you view yourself and your expectations, and the expectations of the outside world?

Being a mother has flipped my life upside down. It is the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I look back at my running career and it all now seems like a dream. I won’t lie – it has been really hard to not expect and want to be back where I was, running free, far, fast and light. But, it has also been a wonderful learning opportunity, everyday, to be reminded of the small wins, the simple gratitude of being a mother, of letting little Skylar teach me and show me a whole new world.

You’re an advocate of raising brave and adventurous children, and involved in the Sisu Girls Project. I love the line from your TedX talk that “we need to show our children that falling is not failing.” Why does the Finnish word “sisu” resonate with you and how are you hoping to share that with your daughter as she grows older?

Sisu = “Determination and persistence in the face of adversity.” This was something I grew up with. I was surrounded by role models such as my family, my teachers, my friends who were all inspired and empowered to succeed, to try and try again, to reach their potential. It was a way of living. This is something that I hope will be instilled in Skylar. I want to encourage her, as my mother encouraged me to spread my wings and fly. And if I trip and fall, I want to be able to jump up, brush off the dust and set off to fly again.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

Do as you did, make mistakes and learn from them, open doors of opportunity and jump through them, share compassion and kindness and explore all the world has to offer.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

March 5, 2020 at 11:44

Tove Jansson

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“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Beloved Tove Jansson. A woman who wore flower crowns and plunged into the sea. A creative woman who gave us the gift of stories through the world of Moomin. A woman of wisdom and insight.

Jansson was born into a creative family, her mother an illustrator (she designed Finnish postage stamps for over three decades) and her father a sculptor. She learned to draw almost before she could walk, and later she would attend art school in both Stockholm and Paris. Her world was one built of curiosity, and navigating her way through it by way of expression–she wrote, she drew, she painted, she thought. As was noted in The New Yorker, “home was continuous with studio, at night filled with music and the couple’s creative friends. While freedom exists in principle, when you grow up in such a setting, and one of your family pets is a monkey named Poppolino, chances are you will become an artist yourself. In an emergency, mother asked if daughter could fill in on an illustration job, and daughter obliged.”

Winters were spent in the art studio and summers on an island. If you have read any of Jansson’s work, you know the power an island holds—they were woven into her work and personal life. As is noted on the website devoted to her work, islands were “hives of adventure and the setting for rebirth and change – places where you can build your own world.” Symbols of freedom, she and her partner (and fellow artist) Tuulikki Pietilä found their own: Klovharu in the Finnish archipelago, where the two women built a small house where they enjoyed over 30 summer seasons together.

Sometimes deliberate people look for their island and conquer it, and sometimes the dream of the island can be a passive symbol for what is one step beyond reach. The island—at last, privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences. 

Sheltered and isolated by the water that is at the same time an open possibility.

A possibility one never considers.

From Jansson’s essay “The Island

Capturing the Nordic landscape and spirit, at the heart of Jansson’s work, there is a world of tension and contrasts, whether it’s contentment versus restlessness, safety versus security, the fear yet exhilaration of the unknown versus the comfort yet mundanity of home. As Tuula Karjalainen wrote in Tove Jansson: Work and Love, excerpted in The Independent:

The inhabitants of Moominvalley often stray from their valley and are subject to storms and disasters on the raging sea. Tove loved the sea in its various manifestations. She described it in her life, in her painting, in the Moomin books and also in her other writing. The Moomins live in these two contrasting worlds: on the one hand, a luxuriant, marine landscape, with brooks, flowers, houses with tiled stoves; and on the other, the unpredictable sea with its barren islands, archipelagos, caves, mussels, sea creatures and boats. In the tension between these worlds, the Moomin family settles down.

That made Jansson’s work layered, which appealed to both children and adults. Karjalainen continues, “even in these early works, it is plain that Tove’s narrative operates on several levels. It is a quality that lies at the basis of all the Moomin books and makes them quite unique in children’s literature. It was also the case that some bewildered publishers were unable to conceive of books that might be suitable for both children and adults.”

Of course, Moomin wasn’t Jansson’s only world. She created an impressive body of artwork, and penned stories specifically for adults, like The Summer Book and Traveling Light. 

In researching Jansson, I came across some old film interviews with her. In one (fyi it’s in Swedish, if you decide to try to watch), she spoke of the impetus for The Summer Book, a book that I read at the beginning of every summer. She describes hitting a creative wall, that she couldn’t work or write, and she went to her mother. Her mother challenged her to write about a very old person and a very young person.

The idea reignited a desire to sit down and write.

This entire project of documenting women has been about wisdom. The wisdom we seek, the wisdom we carry, the wisdom to challenge, the wisdom to ask. In this interview, I found it so touching that the idea for one of Jansson’s most seminal books, the one that feels like her truest story, was one that was sparked by the wisdom of an important woman so close to her.

There is so much to give, so much to find, so much to enjoy, so much to seek. There is wisdom in tension, in layers, in curiosity, in the novel and in the mundane. For that, I find Jansson’s words so powerful.

Stay curious.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

February 12, 2020 at 11:54

Sandy Hernandez

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“Mother Nature binds us all. Nature belongs to everyone.”

-Sandy Hernandez

Who gets to enjoy the outdoors? Who gets to participate in outdoor activities? Everyone. But unfortunately, the outdoor industry suffers from the same systemic racism and inequities that underpin much of our society, people of color often told that they don’t belong. There are many people working hard to change this and make the outdoors more inclusive, from encouraging companies to reconsider hiring policies with the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, to groups like African American Nature & Parks Experience.

There are many voices to highlight and profile in this movement, and Sandy Hernandez is one of them. She works as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park, on the traditional lands of the Ahwahneechee People. Active as both a ranger and activist, she advocates for inclusion and equity within her industry, and is part of the Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion Council in Yosemite, as well as a People of Color Employee Resource Group. She welcomes volunteer groups to the park, and in a traditionally white, male dominated industry, her visibility as a Latina ranger shows other people of color that they have a place in the outdoors. As she says, “nature belongs to everyone.”

In this Women’s Wisdom Project Q&A we learn a little bit more about her work and the importance of diversity and equity in the outdoors.

What does wisdom mean to you?

Wisdom to me means empathy—the ability to share the feelings of another. You gain the ability to listen, understand, accept, connect with others, and live wholeheartedly.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

I will always answer my mom to this question. She is my sheroe. She reminds me to appreciate where I come from and where I can go. She reminds me to stay connected to my Guatemalan roots and never forget those who came before me. She reminds me of just how beautiful immigration is and how hard work pays off. All that I have accomplished is because this amazing woman has always rooted for me.

Another sheroe of mine is Teresa Baker and her can-do attitude. Teresa is the founder of African American National Parks Event and the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge. She reminds me that my voice should be valued at any table I sit in, but to live my life empathetically so others can also join me.

What has your relationship to nature been like throughout your life and how has that evolved?

My ancestors have always been connected to nature. As Teresa Baker says, it’s about reconnecting to outdoor spaces. Growing up in the United States I have always been exposed to the outdoors, but not in the “traditional” way that you see in outdoor magazines. THAT’S OKAY! My love for nature has grown from experiences like visits to local city parks, swimming in lakes and beaches, having outdoor carne asadas con la familia, and seeing a Sequoia for the first time at a national park. Now, Yosemite is my playground and my home. I’ve hiked the longest I have ever hiked, backpacked with strangers who became family, and found beauty in the people who welcome me into their space. I am in love with Yosemite and enjoy sharing with others. It comes with an understanding that everyone experiences the outdoors differently. Mother Nature binds us all. Nature belongs to everyone.

The outdoor industry has struggled, and continues to struggle, with questions of diversity. As a woman of color in the National Park Service, what do you see as important steps in bringing more visibility and inclusivity to marginalized communities? What do we miss out on culturally when we see the outdoors as only available and accessible to one group of people?

We miss out on the feeling of belonging and stewardship over these outdoor spaces. The future of these lands relies on inclusion. Since California is one of five states in the country where “minority” populations are now numerically the majority, these conversations are critical. To keep these public spaces important and sustain them, we need to connect people from all walks of life with National Parks. We need to ask ourselves, how are we working toward having national parks be more accessible to an ever changing and ever-growing constituency? Welcoming ethnic and racial diversity, and accommodating other cultural backgrounds, opens up the opportunity for more people of color to gain experiences to cherish. In nature, there is not a “them” and “us.” It’s just “us.”

Can you tell me a little bit more about Workshop for Ethnic and Racial Minorities in Outdoor Recreation and Education and other initiatives that you and your colleagues at Yosemite are working on to engage in some of these difficult conversations?

In November of 2018, through support from our partners at Yosemite Conservancy, Yosemite National Park (YNP) hosted We.R.More: Workshop for Ethnic and Racial Minorities in Outdoor Recreation and Education, an innovative process that aimed to bring together California community members interested in working on improving relevancy, diversity, and inclusion (RDI) in the outdoor community. Two notable outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists, Jose Gonzalez, founder of Latino Outdoor and Teresa Baker facilitated a two-day workshop where participants camped together and shared with each other the barriers they have experienced in the outdoors as people of color. In creating a safe space where participants could empower each other, these members were shaped into We.R.More Stewards of Yosemite.

The We.R.More Stewards then met with various park leaders and hosted a symposium for Yosemite staff that served as a cultural sensitivity training, but also suggested practical solutions to YNP in moving forward with its RDI efforts. During the symposium, Jose challenged Yosemite to think about what the sense of belonging and connection looks like, and what gap between a cultural space and outdoor conservation needs to be bridged? By tackling these two things, a lot of the tangible challenges can be overcome. Stewards presented on the idea that the future of Yosemite not only relies on biological diversity, but also cultural values.

Since then, Yosemite National Park is working on moving forward on the following: hosting implicit bias training for its employees, doing research in order to uncover untold stories in Yosemite’s history and create new interpretive displays, establishing a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Employee Resource Group, hosting bilingual educational programs (Adventura Yosemite), and more!

More on page 18 in this document.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

The best leaders are those who lead with empathy and vulnerability. These traits do not make you any less stronger than anyone else.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

 

Written by Anna Brones

January 30, 2020 at 08:40

Alice Feiring

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“Writers and other artists give voice to what others cannot or will not articulate.”

-Alice Feiring

Writer and journalist Alice Feiring stands for what she believes in.

Her focus is wine, interested in the stories of the art and craft that goes into making the drink that we have been consuming for centuries, and in turn, advocating for a better wine world, not just for the consumer, but producers and the land. She runs the natural wine newsletter The Feiring Line and is the author of several books. Her latest is Natural Wine for the People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It, an excellent resource for anyone diving into the natural wine world.

An early supporter of the natural wine movement, she’s not afraid to criticize it either. “But any successful movement, whether in politics or viniculture, is vulnerable to corruption. Just as it is reaching peak fame, the previously innocent world of natural wine is coming under threat by opportunists and big business. Natural wine isn’t dead, but something has been lost,” she recently wrote in The New York Times.

Whether you drink wine or not, Feiring stands an excellent example of what it means to take a stand for something as a woman, and the consequences that can ensue. In challenging conventional wine norms, she has faced criticism and scrutiny. In reading opposition to her work, it’s clear to see that satire can quickly turn into misogyny. As she points out in this Q&A, “Men speaking out against the mainstream are often heroes, women are seen as troublemakers or voices to silence. No matter what I say, it seems it’s controversial doesn’t it?”

Thank you to Alice for taking a little time to answer a few Women’s Wisdom Project Q&A questions.

What does wisdom mean to you?
A perfect balance of good judgement, proper boundaries, compassion and a sense of humor.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

I’ve always been such a loner and longed for a mentor. I came close to it once, Beverly Russell. Beverly hired me to work at Interiors Magazine a million years ago but she was unceremoniously stabbed in the back and was let go, subsequently I was as well. On our last breakfast together she gave me two pieces of advice, “It’s not how good you are but who you know, and then how good you are helps you stay. The other warning was that if you’re good, someone will always want to knock you off and take your place.

What drew you to the world of wine? What has kept you in it?
At first the taste. Then its connection to place. Then the people. Then the issue of natural wine and its place in the world. Then the land, the vines and nature. Finally, it is the way it all complexly comes together in a perfect symbol of humanity.

What is the Alice Feiring definition of natural wine?
Start with organic viticulture and then nothing added or taken away, except maybe a bit of So2.

You are considered a controversial figure by some. Why do you think that your writing and work draws such controversy? Do you think that you would draw such controversy if you were not a woman?

Now, that’s a great question. Men speaking out against the mainstream are often heroes, women are seen as troublemakers or voices to silence. No matter what I say, it seems it’s controversial doesn’t it? So why? I have often said things that the industry didn’t want to hear. Without a doubt, women are held to different standards.

You’re known as a wine writer, but from reading other interviews with you, it’s clearly the written word and the craft of writing that you’re drawn to. What about writing feels so powerful to you?

Writers and other artists give voice to what others cannot or will not articulate. When I disparage what I do as self-indulgent, I try to remember that there is a greater purpose other than I just love disappearing into a piece and losing myself. It’s the best drug.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

I’d get tutoring for my dyslexia—but I’m not sure that would have been wisdom, though it would have been life changing. Okay, here’s one; I’d have made sure to become fluent in French.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

January 7, 2020 at 08:21

Soleil Ho

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“…you can choose to continue learning about perspectives that aren’t your own: “I don’t know” isn’t an end, but a beginning.”

-Soleil Ho

Food can be a unifying force. It can also be a divisive one. Through food we carry memories, experiences, people. What we eat and what we make often tells a story of who we are. Food is also a lens and a bridge to so many other topics, an entry point to tackling the critical issues of our time–like gender, class, and race.

Soleil Ho is doing just that. You may know her from her podcast Racist Sandwich, or now in her position as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. She’s a self-described “ethno food warrior,” and she’s using this platform of food as a way to challenge people to rethink their perceptions, their assumptions, and their judgements about people, food and in turn, culture.

Growing up in New York, she spent over a decade working in restaurants. Her grandparents came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam, and that family history has informed her work. She has been diligent about showcasing how embedded racism and oppression is in food, writing pieces on food assimilation, how white chefs win most food awards, a restaurant chain that tried to ban Hawaiian businesses from using the word “aloha,” how to avoid cultural appropriation, and the outdated concept of colonial food. As she wrote in her review of Le Colonial, a French-Vietnamese restaurant, “nostalgia is a blurry lens through which we can view history. We often rewrite it so that the hard, inconvenient parts are pushed to the sidelines in favor of what makes us feel good.”

Food criticism has always been a mostly white and male dominated profession, and her position as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle offers the opportunity to bring an entirely different lens to looking at restaurants, one that’s more holistic and honest about what making and serving food means. As The Washington Post wrote in a profile of Ho, “Having traversed both sides, she’s uniquely positioned to tackle some of the most pressing issues in the food world, some of which were themes in her first reviews: What’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation? What’s the true cost of food and the labor to produce it? How do we make the restaurant industry more equitable, more accessible, more just?”

These are essential questions, because they are not just questions about what we eat, they are also questions about who we are as a culture, where we have put our values, and how we might challenge ourselves to not avoid the inconvenient parts of history (as well as those of modern day) but to acknowledge harsh realities and build a better system moving forward.

I am so glad that Ho took time to answer some questions for the Women’s Wisdom Project, and I hope that perhaps she might challenge you to start thinking a little differently about what’s on your plate, and your own connections to food.

What does wisdom mean to you?

The way I try to act out wisdom is through silence: really considering my words before I speak so that I can stand by everything that I say. To me, it’s also accepting that I don’t know everything and making sure that, to the best of my ability, I consult with others and do my research before talking about things that are new to me.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

After the trial that let George Zimmerman off for the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2017, filmmaker Tanya Steele wrote an incisive and real essay about the constant work that Black people need to do to look harmless to white strangers. There’s a line from the piece that I keep going back to: “I will stop contorting my being to accommodate white neuroses. That’s my new civil rights movement.”

Your work includes being a chef, podcaster, writer, and restaurant critic. What would you say is the driving force behind what you do? Is there a common thread that ties all of those things together? 

Each of those roles was motivated by the acknowledgement that food — like many cultural productions — is an easy way for us to talk about bigger things. A chef knows this because food (and by extension music, decor, language) is part of how they tell their own story. I see my role as a writer and critic as respecting the thought put into that by interpreting and analyzing what those values mean in our social contexts. There is so much that lies beneath the surface of our most minute actions and interactions; revealing the breadth of what everything means is the point of my job, in my mind.

You’re currently working as the SF Chronicle food critic. The Washington Post has referred to you as the “third wave” of food critics. Does working in an industry with such a long history that you are consciously working to change feel like a lot of pressure? And along those lines, how do you see the food media landscape shifting and how would you like to see it continue to evolve?

It does feel like a lot of pressure! If you’ve been working to diversify your field and then become that diversity, the pressure to perform excellently is enormous. I think that thought about food has become more rigorous and serious — no longer an escape from politics — thanks in part to the burgeoning interdisciplinary Food Studies work in academia, and that excites me. With that in mind, it’s also really important to not just discount the work that’s been done in the field prior to that professionalization: people outside of academia and the professional critic class have understood how food could serve as an apt metaphor for social issues for a very long time. So many indigenous and marginalized organizations around the world have historically focused on food sovereignty as a way to galvanize their communities.

Through your podcast Racist Sandwich and your writing you have focused on food as a lens for tackling important issues like race and gender. Why do you think food is a good vehicle for doing this?

Food makes for an excellent starting point for a Socratic way of getting to the politics of everything. Why are you eating this? Who made it? Why do you call it X? Where did it come from? Who harvested this?

How do we work to better amplify marginalized voices, whether that’s in food or elsewhere?

A good thing to always remember is that you can choose to continue learning about perspectives that aren’t your own: “I don’t know” isn’t an end, but a beginning.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

You’re gay!

You can also sign up for Ho’s weekly San Francisco Chronicle newsletter, Bite Curious

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

October 9, 2019 at 08:16