Friday, July 10, 2009

A visit with author, Janet Riehl

Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music

Janet and I met over the internet while doing a blogtour for author, Eric Maisel. I visited her blog. She visited mine. And a blog friendship was born. We’ve supported each other often, commenting on new events in our lives both good and bad. Today, I’m so happy to have her visit my blog as part of her own blogtour for her new audio book, ‘Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music’.

Janet’s coming to Art & Words from Janet Muirhead Hill’s blog. You can see the complete calendar for Janet’s blogtour

The audio book, ‘Sightlines, A Poet’s Diary’ is a weaving together of the lives of six generations featuring Janet and her father reading poems, telling stories, singing and playing music that brings us all back to the true meaning of family.

Welcome, Janet. I’m so glad you’re here to visit, so let’s chat.

Susan: When you began commuting from California to your family’s home in the Midwest after your sister’s tragic death, what was your creative life like in Lake County in Northern California?
Janet: I’d moved up to Lake County in 1998 to continue my life as a working artist by living less expensively after living in the Bay Area for about a dozen years. By the time I moved back to the Midwest, I’d spent around 22 years in California. That wasn’t part of my life plan, it just worked out that way.
In the Bay Area, in 1990, the art came in for me. I painted large scale banners on cloth and had my first solo show 9 months later. I belonged to a story telling troupe led by Luisah Teish—Storyteller, Yoruba Priestess, Writer, Director, Teacher and Performer. I wrote my own stories, preformed them, and used the banners I’d painted as the backdrops and props. I began a stream of creative writing in addition to the stories I performed.
When I moved up North to Lake County—a sparsely populated, breathtakingly beautiful, poor, rural locale—I made my mission to promote arts and culture within the county. I did that in every media possible: writing, visual art, and performance.
As a writer I sponsored poetry readings and a monthly writing circle. I was twice nominated Poet Laureate of Lake County…a surprisingly hotly contested position.
As a visual artist I mounted outdoor celebrations-performances-installations in both state parks in the county. I was given a grant from UC/Davis to be bio-regional artist in residence the year of my “Water Ceremonies” work. I showed throughout California and engaged in mail art internationally.
As a performer I appeared twice in The Vagina Monologues and several local theater productions. For three years running my sweetheart and I produced a comedy variety review show called “Comedy on Tilt.”
Plus, I supported much of this community arts work through substitute teaching all around the lake, running a family literacy program, and teaching art class for children.
In other words, in many ways, my life was not unlike the lives of most practicing artists: I did what I could, when I could, as well as I could.

Susan: How did you keep it going during these years between 2004 when your sister died, through your mother’s death in 2006, to the time you moved back in 2007?
Janet: I had to scale back. I’d be in Illinois for six weeks and then back in Lake County for three weeks. This schedule lasted for years. What I loved about writing “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” was that it was portable. I could write while caring for my mother and supporting my father. All the information I needed I carried on my thumb drive. The book was something I could shape and control and own—at a time when the wheelbarrow of my life had completely tipped over.

Susan: Did you do more visual art before your sister’s death in 2004?
Janet: For 17 years I kept my visual art practice going: 1) from 1990 when the art came in… 2) through 1996 when I graduated with high distinction from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland as a clay sculptor… 3) and on up to the time of my definitive move to the Midwest in 2007.
My studio, Rocking Triangle Studio, was active in producing work and projects in many media. I continued to contribute to the visual art world of Lake County after Julia’s death in 2004. I joined the board of EcoArts of Lake County during that time.
My method was to rotate between writing, visual art, and performance, in terms of where my energy was focused during any given period.
As I prepared for my move in 2007, trying to figure out what to pack, I decided that I would close my studio. I gave away much of the art I’d created and my art materials. I took some materials to my father’s house just to play with myself and with my great-nieces.

Susan: Writing is now your main art form?
Janet: I decided that I needed to make my life simpler by focusing on one discipline. I decided that would be writing.

Susan: Do you see the story poem becoming an ongoing form for you?
Janet: My main form of writing is memoir. The first book came out as the story poems. The memoir I’m currently writing “Finding My African Heart: A Village of Stories” is solely in prose.

Susan: In your new audio book, Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music [hotlink to CD Baby], you combined your love of words with music. How did that come about?
Janet: When we were kids we always sang in the car. The great love of my father’s life is the music of his boyhood and young manhood. He’s an excellent musician, performer, and composer. But, for him, it’s all about the music.
I’d used music in my talks as I traveled sharing “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.” In Illinois, my father performed with me several times during these talks. I’m a musician myself.
Shaping the audio book into interweavings of poems, songs, family stories, and the banter of our recording session in Pop’s parlor naturally provided a fuller context.

Susan: You’ve talked about quilting as an important part of your family history, how have you carried on the tradition of quilting?
Janet: I’ll never be a quilter as my great aunties were or as my mother was. I’m not adept at fine stitches, for instance. My sister and I embroidered on a flower quilt in the car on our family vacations. My stitches, as a 6-year younger sister, were always so sprawling compared to hers.

In Ghana I pieced a quilt top from the hand-woven strip cloth made in the North. When I came back to the States in the late 1970s, Mother worked with me to complete this to bed-size, pad it, line it, and tuft it as we did her comforters.

I’d collected marvelous Maridadi silk screen prints from Kenya. (Maridadi is Swahili for anything beautiful, tasteful, or pleasing to the eye.) Mother worked with me in the same way to make a doublebed quilt top and take it all the way to a full-fledged comforter.

After 911, I made a Peace Quilt out of paper towels which carried the words to my poem “What I Want to Say about War” against a back drop of black trash bags…embellished by other media.

The quilting instinct is the desire to bring together fragments into one object of beauty and meaning. I do that through collaging in a variety of media. “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music” is, essentially, collaged from pieces of sound that tell stories in words or music.

Susan: How has sharing your feelings, music, and poetry helped you through this tragedy and brought you closer to your community?
Janet: In some ways, this has happened by bringing the community closer to me. I was able to create a far-flung community of people who don’t know each other and have never met who have found the two projects in The Sightlines Collection—book and audio book—helpful to them. This gave our experience a sense of meaning and purpose.
There are even some readers who go back to read “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” once a year since it’s come out. That’s an astonishing outreach for an individually produced project.

Thank you for stopping by on your busy blogtour, today. The next stop on Janet’s tour is with another Janet. You can hear her on Janet Elaine-Smith’s internet radio show, “Marketing for Fun and Profit on PIVR(Passionate Internet Voices Radio)
To win a free audio book view and comment on the featured video of the week on the top post at Janet will use a random numbers generator to choose a winning comment.


Janet Grace Riehl said...


I know that in order to post our interview that you had to overcome many technical obstacles and art scheduling demands.

You are a hero for meeting all these nasty headaches and moving forward no matter what!

I admire you for your work to combine writing and visual art. It can be done. That is the work of bridging.

I'm passionate about the interconnection between the arts and I'm so glad you're pursuing that in yourself.

Think of it this way--no matter what you do, there will be an element of sculpture in it....because sculpting is shaping...and that's the essence of creative discipline.

In writing this comes out most clearly in the editing and re-writing phase.

Just try a little rotational limiting and you can keep up both for a long time to come.

Take a deep breath and pat yourself all over for a job well-done.

Janet Riehl

Susan Gallacher-Turner said...

I'm beginning to realize that one of the greatest feelings is facing challenges and overcoming them. It's been a challenging time for me, that's for sure. I don't think of myself as a hero but one thing I do know is that the kindness and support of people like you, has been amazing!

I never thought of editing as sculpting but you are right! It is shaping a piece of writing just like adding and subtracting clay is shaping a sculpture.

I, too, am passionate about the interconnections in the arts and life. That's why I started a new blog and website and to honor people who creatively live their lives.

Thank you, Janet for your wise words and friendship, as always.
Susan Gallacher-Turner

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating interview! As always, there's insight in the interplay of the questions you chose so thoughtfully, Susan, and the answers Janet draws from her work and life. Thanks for posting it!

Susan Gallacher-Turner said...

So glad you stopped by, I'm so glad that you found the interview interesting.

Susan GT