New Essay

Last week I sat beside a picture window in a lakeside rental cabin in rural Pennsylvania, and, as the morning sunlight spilled over my keyboard, signed a contract giving the Michigan Quarterly Review / MQR Online permission to publish one of my essays. It’s a beautiful feeling to see my work recognized. Does it make me feel like I “leveled up” as a writer? No. I “level up” only when I produce new work. That will, always and forever, be the thing that gives me the most joy.

Next week the New York Society Library re-opens their reading rooms and study spaces, and I’ll finally have my space back, to sit and stare out of another sun-dappled window. And (hopefully) finish the next one.

What’s so hard about writing?

Color silkscreen poster promoting conservation of flowers as a natural resource. Designed by Stanley Thomas Clough, 1939. Source: Library of Congress

Doubt. Words. Sentences. Silencing the voice that needs to explain what it is. Or why now. Or how, exactly, you do it.

I write to heal, to express myself, to forgive. I write to feel proud, I write to solve a problem, I write until there is nothing left in me to say.

Writing is work. I write despite the fear of being judged, of making a mistake, of losing a loved one. I write despite deciding there’s nothing new left to say, that it’s all been said before.

I write because what’s more important to me than all of these things is the feeling I get when I’m lost in my world, of holding my breath before letting it go, treading through the tangled brush of not knowing, rescuing things long discarded, examining them piece by piece. What’s more important is unlocking secrets. Saying what exactly what I need to say in the unwritten spaces between words.

It’s beginning a conversation. It’s picking up a smooth stone washed ashore. “Here—take this. Carry it with you.” It’s reminding others, “It happened to me, too. And we’re both going to be okay.”

Interview! Figurative Expressionist and Portrait Artist Betty Southerland

“It takes a massive amount of will and self determination to spend so much time and resources on something that isn’t very much appreciated in a world that wants to put a dollar sign on everything, so I have learned to be very protective of my free time so I can focus on the work that matters to me.”

If someone asked you to describe your artist self, what are the first words that come to mind? Since you practice several different disciplines (including graphic design) does this description change depending on who you’re talking to? If so, why do you think that is the case?
If all of the paintings I’ve completed in the past six years or so are viewed in a certain way, the story of me is told in a detail that I have very few words to describe. I would ask folks to look at my work closely and from different perspectives; some of the paintings look repulsive on the surface but if you stick with it, you will be surprised. My life has been that way: scary on the surface but deep and fulfilling beneath the façade. Suffering can be transformative. It’s no accident that freedom and transformation are recurring themes in my work. I don’t speak much in my daily life; words often fail me and I find them limiting. I trust my instincts and I am curious and experimental. Most of what I have done over the past six years was done as “practice” which allowed me freedom to enjoy making work without worrying about whether or not someone else will like, buy, or approve of it. I do a lot of photo studies because they allow me to enjoy the act of creating without thinking.

I have always been drawn to art and have known since I was four that it was what I wanted to do forever, though I was told throughout my life that artists don’t make money. This was frightening to me having grown up in poverty and been homeless as a teen. In order to survive in this world, without the usual forms of support and a limited education, I was guided into graphic design as a career. For 30 years, these skills have provided for me. I have had fun working with other designers/creatives and I consider myself very lucky to have a job that allows me to be somewhat creative and use technology in novel ways. I am always grateful for the opportunities but also felt like my own artistic voice was frequently lost in deadlines, client briefs, and demands. This is why it became important to start making art of my own that had no purpose other than to be created. Self-supporting from my day job as a graphic designer and illustrator affords me the money to buy the necessities and an assortment of art supplies, but not always unlimited free time to create. It is a balancing act that all artists face. It takes a massive amount of will and self determination to spend so much time and resources on something that isn’t very much appreciated in a world that wants to put a dollar sign on everything, so I have learned to be very protective of my free time so I can focus on the work that matters to me. I find that compartmentalizing the types of art I do for others helps me set boundaries on what I will or won’t do for money. If I can manage to stick to those boundaries, I make space to create what I want!

Yes! Let’s talk more about that: the product, the process, how the act of creation is fulfilling for you.
I enjoy the process of making art more than I enjoy having a finished product, although there is always an excitement in finishing a painting mainly because I get to start a new one. I find, however, that the finished pieces feel familial to me and I enjoy having them around, though I am not so deeply attached that I can’t let them go when the time is right. The pleasure is all in the making. I trust my instincts when “rehoming” my paintings. When it comes to making art for others, I do want to ultimately share it and I am inspired by the idea of secretly gifting folks with a little surprise or unexpected magic moment in a painting. It thrills me to think of someone owning one of my paintings and one day catching something out of the blue that they never noticed before. It’s even more fun when I get to see the recognition on their faces when they see a hidden element. I like learning new things. The discovery of new techniques, processes, and materials is what makes art fun and fulfills a part of me that felt empty for much of my life. In the past, I filled that hole with food or relationships, trusting others’ opinions over my own intuition, until I discovered that I really just needed to express myself with art. 

How did you find your way to art?
For several decades, I have been involved with graphic design but I hadn’t worked on my own (non-money making) projects. For about 20 years, I didn’t do much art at all. In the past, I felt overwhelmed with work and home and believed I never had much time for self-expression. This became a detriment to my spirit and literally made me sick. There was always an excuse for why I couldn’t paint/draw. I had a lot of people around me giving me vocal support but what I needed was to give myself time, space, and permission to create. As a young woman, I focused on what I felt the world expected of me and told myself “there’s plenty of time for all that later,” finding that there never was. After giving so much of myself away, my soul didn’t have the energy to create, it seemed. I was also afraid to share my work and I felt that it had to be perfect before I could show it. Following a car wreck that left me in a wheelchair for about nine months, I noticed that my old ways of being and relating to the world stopped working. My life changed completely and I knew without a doubt that I must make art. Not long after that, I became a single mother and I realized how much time I had actually squandered! This began a period of realignment and psychic transformation that unfolded over several years. Every excuse I had crumbled when I realized I didn’t have to worry about who liked my work or how to sell it or what happened to it in the end—I just had to make it. So I set about reorganizing my life to make it a priority while my intuitive voice said over and over: Just make art.

I set up little art stations all over my house so I could work on projects for a few minutes at a time if needed. I gave myself no limits and set a goal of using every art supply I had ever purchased which, at the time, were sitting in boxes gathering dust. In this way, I was able to hone in on materials and medium preferences, settling mostly on a love of painting, though I prefer not to limit myself to medium or subject, style, etc.

I also started saying yes to every creative opportunity that felt good, especially the scary ones like painting live which I now really enjoy! I watched my creative friends and learned how they made time for art: They stole their time back from the things that didn’t matter. I took materials with me when I left the house and every moment I had to wait for something became a moment I could sketch or paint. I streamlined my relationships and activities to include only the people, things, and events that served my soul. And I started posting everything online. This part was hard at first—there are some real tragedies of skill in my Facebook feed—but it was important that I get over myself and just make and share the art. Now, I have the courage to create without caring much what others think of me.

I once had a teacher say to me, “Art is a rebellious act.” Do you agree with this statement? If so, how do you use your art in a rebellious and/or political way (both the creation of it and the sharing of it)?
YES! I think of happiness and joy as the ultimate rebellious act. Art makes joy and joy makes art for me. This is why I encourage everyone who tells me they love art (usually followed by a bunch of “buts,” like, “I can’t even draw stick figures!”) to go home and make a bunch of ugly art as soon as possible. In our society, it seems that it is almost expected of us to be miserable and full of doubt. I always felt like I wasn’t allowed to do anything that didn’t make money in the end but I eventually found that if I do the things that make me happy, art is either the springboard or the result. I have discovered it’s important for me to make art especially when I don’t feel like it. My feelings will be settled in the process of creating.

What was the first piece of art you laid eyes on that evoked strong feelings for you?
In the second grade, I went on a school field trip to a museum and it was the first time I’d seen old master works. I can’t recall an exact painting that moved me the most but I was awed by all of them; I had no idea that sort of art was possible and I think I have always believed deep down that if someone else can do it, so can I. Realism became very interesting to me as a result. I also remember one pretty gruesome piece. The guide had us sit on the floor as she explained it but I wasn’t really listening. Back then, I couldn’t understand why someone would want to paint such a scary thing, though now I understand. As an adult, I remember being wowed by Frida Kahlo in the 1980s and reading everything about her life. And I definitely remember the first time I was able to see and understand a Mark Rothko painting, which cracked my heart right open.

As an artist, where—or from whom—do you draw your strength?
I practice meditation and when I can manage to settle myself down and be still, I am quickly reminded that everything I ever need to know is already within and flowing around and through me. Making art is actually the easiest form of meditation for me. In that flow, I am reminded that I can’t make a mistake because there are no mistakes and even if there are, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is love and love is more powerful than anything else. I am very happy to be able to see all the love around me most of the time. When I forget this or have trouble calming my mind, my son, sisters/family, friends, animals, and nature remind me. I feel really grateful for that.

12″ x 9″ oil on canvas

Betty Southerland is a rebelliously-human artist who makes paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media works exploring the human experience. Mostly self-taught, Betty has enjoyed a fulfilling career in graphic design, content creation, and illustration for a variety of industries and nonprofits while independently studying and practicing art. In 2014, she began painting consistently, studying realism, and creating work as an emerging figurative expressionist and portrait artist. In 2016, she began working with oil paints. She is a Saatchi contributor and a proud member of the Portrait Society of America. Her work appears in 500 Tangled Artworks and ADC Miami via Hungry Castle/Laser Cat. She continues to paint live and show her work in and around Dallas, Texas. Betty was honored to be interviewed during a live painting performance at EarthX for an upcoming documentary film, Last Look at Eden, which explores art in conservation.

Interview! Writer and Publishing Assistant Laura Hart

This past fall, I had the opportunity to intern at Bellevue Literary Press and got to know some great folks during my time there, including their publishing assistant, Laura Hart. In this interview, Laura answers all of the tough questions about writing, workshopping, and publishing, why it’s imperative for a writer to take risks in their work, and shares several Star Trek characters she most identifies with (even though I asked her to choose only one).

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“I wrote about my dolls. I wrote about the dogs I owned on a video game. I don’t recall a point in time when I consciously thought about the transition from reader-only to reader-writer. It just happened.”

You are not only a writer, but also someone who worked at a literary agency and now works at a press. How do you reconcile your writer/artist self with your publishing assistant self? Are they one and the same (or do they need to be)? Do you believe there is an art to publishing?

No. They don’t have to be one and the same. I’m constantly reevaluating my priorities. Right now, my career is my priority, and I don’t see myself ever being a full-time writer. Some of my friends are more dedicated to their craft than I am; they can’t go a day without sitting down at the computer, whereas I’m fine not writing for several months at a time. It’s cathartic and enjoyable, yes, but I’m more focused on helping other people tell their stories for the time being. The cool thing about having worked at both an agency and a press is that I’ve seen a somewhat comprehensive view of the entire system. I don’t claim to understand all the minutiae, but I have seen a few ways that a manuscript moves from the writer’s computer to the readers’ hands. And there are lots of hoops to jump through. I think the key to publishing is patience. I also think that those of us on the inside need to take a hard look at the way things work and make changes so that underrepresented authors have a chance.

You have the great privilege of working in an office surrounded by books. Some writers can pinpoint the book or story they read that made them want to become a writer. Was that the case for you? What was the first book you ever loved?

The very first book I ever loved was Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I ate that book up when I was little. This colorful little picture book was actually the first one I ever read, and it still sits on my shelves at home. I’m pretty sure I have multiple copies. I have a tote bag with the caterpillar on it. I plan on reading it to my kids one day.

I was immersed in stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar from the time I was born, so stories have always been a part of me. I started writing in the third grade. After a story competition for which we had to write about the prompt “Books as Treasure,” I started filling up notebooks, to the chagrin of my parents who had to take me to Target and Walmart and eventually TJ Maxx to get the pretty ones. I had pencils in my desk, and my friend Chris and I made up stories about their exciting lives in Pencil Town instead of paying attention in class. I wrote about my dolls. I wrote about the dogs I owned on a video game. I don’t recall a point in time when I consciously thought about the transition from reader-only to reader-writer. It just happened. So it probably won’t surprise you that I didn’t have an epiphany related to a publishing career, either. I wound up trying to major in chemistry at Auburn, and I was woefully unhappy. I always say to pursue your passion, not your interest. I was pursuing an interest. My first literature professor, Dr. Carcache, encouraged me to do the right thing and choose passion. I switched my major to English Literature and over that semester developed a loose plan for pursuing a career in publishing. I looked back on all my favorite books—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc.—and decided I’d have a hell of a lot of fun being involved in the process of creating books like that.

I imagine that anyone who has participated in a writers’ workshop of any kind has experienced at least one moment where the feedback from their writing peers came across as insensitive and/or misguided (I know I did!). How does your experience participating in writing workshops (both inside and outside of an MFA program) factor into the way you read submissions now?

This question brought to my mind a few choice encounters in the MFA program that made my blood boil. Sometimes, readers tend to forget that another human being wrote the piece of writing up for discussion, and critiques can be insensitive, more personal than constructive. I try, when I read submissions, to focus on what the writer has done well, and when it’s time for revisions I do the same, so that the writer can do more of that good work and improve weaker sections.

On the flip side, I remember working at the Miller Writing Center in Auburn and being taught to separate the writer from the writing when working with a student. Imagine two scenarios: In one, the student has written something offensive; you question the writer’s intention and critique the writing itself, not the person. This avoids heated discussions, as well as truly upsetting someone who didn’t know any better. In another, a student is particularly anxious about their writing, and separating them from the piece itself prevents them from feeling like you’re criticizing them personally.

And, of course, unrelated to the question of feelings, my education in literature has refined my taste. I’ve learned about critical theory and different types of structure. I’ve learned the rules, and I’m learning how to break them in interesting ways. I’ve learned about style. When a writer takes risks and creates beautiful, lyrical prose, I’m drawn in.

For writers, the submission process can be an intimidating, nerve-wracking experience. In our conversations, we’ve discussed how pitching to literary agents and editors can feel like a “one shot” deal; everything feels as though it needs to be perfect the first time around or it’s over for the writer forever. What are some of your thoughts, advice, and/or words of wisdom about this process? How can a writer tell when they’re ready to submit to a literary magazine? How can they tell when they’re ready to submit a full manuscript to an agent or publisher?

DISCLAIMER: Your piece of writing will never please everyone. It will never be perfect. No one will submit and get accepted every time. Talented writers we all love and follow on Twitter have been rejected handfuls of times. You have to keep trying. Writing is about persisting. Keep your expectations tempered, keep your eyes up, and keep moving.

A strategy for submitting that I like is breaking the process into chunks. Make a list of the publications or imprints you want to submit to. Divide them up into rounds. Submit to your dream places first, wait a few months, and submit to the next tier if you don’t hear anything. If, after the second or third tier, you don’t receive any acceptance letters, maybe take the piece back to the drawing board and revise a little. Then go back out. If an editor tells you that Piece A isn’t for them but they’d love for you to submit something else, do it. Do it quickly. After interning at an agency, I can tell you that agents and editors only tell you to submit again if they mean it. It’s not a one-shot deal, per se, but don’t waste time second-guessing yourself. And remember, agents and editors are constantly chipping away at their inboxes, muddling through an endless deluge of submissions. If you submit something that’s crap one time, odds are that they won’t remember, unless the piece in question was outrageously offensive. Keep revising. Keep trying. Ask for comments after rejection letters.

If you were some kind of amazing book proposal magnet that was able to decide which ones were sent to you, what would those proposals look like? What is the “dream book” you’ve always wanted to see published? What is the book you’ve always wanted to write?

I’m a fairly open reader. I love literary fiction and sci-fi, as well as upmarket fiction, creative nonfiction, and philosophy (think The Second Sex, At the Existentialist Café). I love interconnected story collections, like Bryan Washington’s Lot. I love explorations and critiques of grammar like John McWhorter’s Talking Back, Talking Black. I love novels about characters who are faced with a strange, changing world and have to reevaluate the ways in which they move through it. Ideally, I’d receive proposals that were a mishmash of my favorite books—The Secret History, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Pastoralia, Fahrenheit 451, The Changeling, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Fifth Woman, The Collected Schizophrenias, Educated, and most recently, Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik. I have so many favorites. Scroll through my Goodreads ratings. You’ll find a treasure trove of references. In the meantime, I’ll be drafting my more specific Manuscript Wish List. As for the book I’ve always wanted to write… I’m currently writing it. It’ll probably be on shelves in 2050. Keep a look out.

We’ve spoken extensively about how important it is to make space for marginalized writers in this industry. Why is it so important to you personally?

We talked a while ago about how certain marginalized communities are put at a disadvantage from birth—those who don’t have the money for private schools, ACT tutors, and college tuition have a much harder time getting decent-paying jobs, much less decent-paying jobs in a field they’re passionate about, than those who do have the money. I had the privilege of growing up in a household with a stable income, graduating from Auburn without student debt, and going to Columbia for my MFA. I’m privileged to be married to a wonderful husband who supports me and enables me to pursue my dream career. I’ve been set up for success every step of the way. And instead of gloat in my accomplishments, I want to devote my career to diversifying the publishing industry, both in terms of people and stories. Not only because I have the privilege to do so but because I recognize that each person contributes something different (dreams, ideologies, cultures, religions, etc.). Our society is a lot more diverse than the publishing world makes it seem. Not only is it important for people of diverse backgrounds to be represented, but it is also important that we continually seek out the opinions and experiences of those who are different from us. We’ve become too much of an echo chamber with white writers dominating the scene. I want to shake that up. And this isn’t just about books, either. It’s about changing the system in such a way that we have a wider range of diverse editors and agents, too.

You will hate me for this BUT we have to talk about the fact that you are not only smart, talented, and literary but you’re also a BIG Star Trek fan! Have you really seen every episode from every series? What character do you most identify with and why? What have you learned from that character?


Agh. Ok. Yes. I’ve seen every episode from every series, with the exception of one or two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve seen a couple episodes (“The Drumhead” and “City on the Edge of Forever” in particular) multiple times. What is the power of story if not to take us into the future and show us the potential of humanity, both the good and the ways we overcome the bad?

I’ve been asked my favorite character (Spock) plenty of times, and my favorite captain (Picard/Sisko) even more, but never which character I identify with! This is a tough one. I see different aspects of myself in several characters, and maybe that’s the point of Star Trek. I see a little of myself in Deanna Troi, who loves chocolate and is in-tune with everyone’s emotions. I can be stubborn like Kira Nerys and sarcastic like Bones. I love my family like Captain Sisko. I’ve felt out of my element before but slowly adapted and tried to make a name for myself like Ezri Dax. I wish I had more of Spock’s logic, but oh well. What I’ve learned from all these characters is that there’s no one way to be a hero; individuality is a wonderful thing, and when we put aside our differences and work together, we can create as much of a utopia as possible.


Laura Hart is a publishing assistant at Bellevue Literary Press. She earned a BA from Auburn University and an MFA from Columbia University. She previously worked at Writers House and the Columbia Journal.

Interview! Cabaret Performer, Monologist, and Storyteller Katherine Rose Turbes!

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“I strive to be ‘excruciatingly authentic’ as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances.”

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Monologue ideas: Who needs paper when you can use your thigh? (photos courtesy of @katharsis_ravyn_turbes)

If you live in New York City and have not yet heard the name Katherine Rose Turbes, you will. I first met Katherine (preferred pronoun “they”) at a Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders show. Katherine wore pink hair, a black lace dress, and radiated joy. I just had to get to know them. We chatted about how important it is for artists to support one another and their love of cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond. As I suspected they would be, Katherine’s answers to my super-specific interview questions were utterly entertaining and inspired. So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to… Katherine Rose Turbes!

I personally see you as a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional artist, but how do you see yourself? Do you identify as a singer, writer, performance artist, or all three? What came first? Are there any other facets of your artist personality that remain hidden or the general public has yet to see?

I see myself as a performer first and foremost, specifically a cabaret performer. I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always been a performer, but the choice to combine the two happened relatively recently, and I believe I’m far better at both skills when I put them together. As for singing, I’m not a conventionally good singer, but I like my voice and use it more as an acting tool than as something intended to sound pretty. Cabarets are often defined by the inclusion of music and I haven’t gotten to a point where there’s as much music incorporated into pieces I’ve premiered as there will be in future pieces, but that’s coming. I’m working on learning to play ukulele, though learning an instrument is a long and arduous process for me, but I aspire towards including ukulele in my future performances.

For someone reading who has never seen one of your performances, how would you describe them?

There’s this lyric by the band AJJ that goes “I hate whiny fucking songs like this but I can’t afford a therapist- sorry guys, here’s a solo!” and I feel like that really describes my work! Although, unlike the speaker of that song, I love when artists use their work to speak openly about their struggles. There’s this notion of “eloquence” described by the Dalai Lama, but taught to me by Kate Bornstein, that the essence of eloquence is “speaking a truth in a way that eases suffering” and that’s always my intention with my work. As such, I strive to be “excruciatingly authentic” as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances, especially since I know that kind of art helps me!

In one of your Instagram posts right after your Bluestockings performance, you proudly called yourself “one of the hottest hot messes [you’ve] ever been.” I loved that so much. It was a great reminder that perfectionism is NOT the goal here. When you’re writing, or memorizing a monologue, or doing the hundreds of other things necessary to prepare from an upcoming show, what are the different ways you try to stay out of your own head, avoid that self-sabotage impulse many artists have? How do you not only create physical and mental space for yourself but get to a place of (what I’m now calling) full-on, prideful bad-assery?

Oh goodness, okay, well the reason I made that post was because that level of, as you say, “full-on, prideful bad-assery” was a first for me and a long time in the making! One of my many less-than-stellar attributes is that my default is holding myself to nearly impossibly high standards, but luckily I know what helped me in that moment so hopefully I (and perhaps others) can replicate it. Firstly, I vehemently believe in and adhere to the theatre truth of “The Show Must Go On”! I was far from at the top of my game that night and debated not performing since I felt so unprepared, yet I decided that I’d rather risk sucking than not do it. Secondly, although, “comparison is violence” as Taylor Mac says, it helps me to remember how phenomenally imperfect my idols are. They take risks and give themselves permission to make mistakes on stage, and often work their mistakes into their pieces resulting in something far more captivating than if everything had gone precisely as planned. It has specifically helped me to remember a speech Mx.Justin Vivian Bond gave called “How To Take A Flying Leap,” in which they talk about how you mustn’t judge yourself too harshly or think about what you’re doing in the moment. You do what you know you have to do, commit to the moment, and focus on conveying your story to the audience. Remembering that people I admire are capable of that, and that their mistakes endear me even more to them, helps me to be more okay with my own inevitable imperfection.

When I saw you perform your piece back at the “Am I Write Ladies?” event in March, you were a beautiful, fearless lion. You were a force. When you were on that stage at The Footlight were you feeling that sense of fearlessness? If so, how do you tap into it before a performance? If not, how do you push through the fear? People are always telling artists that in order to grow, we need to do things that seem scary, and say yes before we’re ready. Do you believe that’s true?

Oh my goodness, I was shaking like a leaf! I wasn’t afraid in a stage-fright sort of way, but I was incredibly emotional and the stakes were extremely high! I knew that I’d devoutly rehearsed the piece and held myself accountable in making sure I was prepared, so I knew I had it in me to make myself proud and I knew what I was saying was important. For me, that’s enough! I absolutely believe one must take risks in their work, and, although it’s far easier said than done, I think one must be forgiving of one’s self if/when things don’t go as planned.

Whom or what currently influences or inspires you and how have you, directly or indirectly, incorporated those influences into your work?

Of all the questions you’ve asked, this is honestly the most intimidating, since there are so many people who inspire me! Here are my Top 5 influences at the moment (in no particular order):

  • Justin Vivian Bond! I admire Mx.Viv profoundly and have seen them perform more than anyone else, so it’s difficult to succinctly quantify their influence. They’re a force of nature and, as some have put it, “a cabaret messiah” so seeing them perform inevitably made me fall head-over-heels in love with the artform of cabaret. Being perpetually astonished by their shows made me realize the breadth of possibilities of what can be done with the cabaret format, and that this is something available to me to work with!
  • Kenny Mellman! Kenny is such an inspiration to me and, thus far, I think his influence is the easiest to spot within the work I’ve premiered. I reference it in the text of the piece itself, but “XO Tour Llif3 (à la “KRT”),” a piece I wrote and premiered last September, was directly inspired by his long-running show called Our Hit Parade. Like Our Hit Parade, my piece completely reinterprets / recontextualizes a pop song, and like Kenny’s version of “Dog Days Are Over” it pays tribute to the dead, by speaking their names so any audience who hears it can know and remember!
  • (It’s also worth noting that one of my biggest influences is the cabaret act/duo Kiki and Herb made up of Mx.Viv and Kenny, thus not only am I inspired by them as artists individually, but their collaboration is equally a source of inspiration!
  • Kate Bornstein! Auntie Kate’s book Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens Freaks and Other Outlaws is my absolute favorite book. As someone who struggles with their own mental illness and has had multiple friends kill themselves, Kate’s work is vital. Her mental health advocacy (and work in general) rejects respectability politics and instead provides authentic accounts of her experiences, thus making her advice empathetic, accessible and genuinely helpful. It probably sounds idealistic to say that I hope my work saves lives, but I know Kate Bornstein’s work does, so if I could somehow make something even a smidgeon as helpful as Hello Cruel World, I’d be extremely grateful!
  • Nath Ann Carrera! I’ve always admired Nath Ann’s encyclopedic knowledge of the people they admire and how they work their interests into their performances. Their most recent show that especially inspires me is their cabaret “The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton” in which they explore Dolly’s darker songs. What really resonates with me is the exploration of humor and morbidity, and how certain songs that seem over the top and campy were based on true tragedies in Dolly’s life. Although presenting these songs with deadpan humor, Nath Ann respects Dolly’s absurd sincerity and empathetically explains the contexts and real life parallels. Being able to embrace dark humor while respectfully portraying the stories of real people is something I truly admire and aspire to do in my work!
  • Taylor Mac! Taylor Mac creates in a grandiose scale, yet judy’s work is always
    personal. Mac is ostensibly guided by making sure that history (and by extension, the lives of people they lost) is remembered. Judy has spent multiple shows eulogizing their mentor Mother Flawless Sabrina, as well as other queer historical figures. Two pieces of judy’s that impact me the most are the riff on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” from The Young Ladies Of in which Mac tells the story of judy’s family and dead father. After reflecting on what seemed like an inherited curse of toxic masculinity, Mac leads the audience in singing the chorus of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. As Mac quietly looks out on the audience singing “What’s the use of wondering?” Mac says to judy’s father: “Dear Robert, this is my last letter to you. A singing telegram.” The video of it was removed from Vimeo a year ago but even thinking about it gives me chills. The other most impactful piece Taylor Mac performs is a ukulele song entitled “You can lie down or get up and play”. Both pieces feel cosmic in their ability to call to those who have gone. I had a dream once that described Taylor Mac as a “death witch”- I think that suits judy. I want to be a death witch too!

As for what inspires me, that’s simple: my lived experiences. My pieces are based on real events, albeit oftentimes stylized, and every story I tell about my life and my loved ones actually happened.

What is one thing that someone would be surprised to learn about you?

To me it’s surprising that there are environments in which I’m seen as mysterious, for instance at my day job. I’m a compulsive oversharer—I can’t lie, and I aspire towards openness, particularly in my work as a performer. Yet, at my day job, people are often shocked to hear that I’m a performer, since they think me subdued, quiet, and reserved, which anyone who truly knows me knows I’m the antithesis of!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’ll be performing at Dixon Place on May 23rd at 7:30 PM as part of Dust Tea Shoulders’ CAMPFIRE! Queer Storytime! I’d love it if y’all could make it!

Katherine is a cabaret performer, monologist, and storyteller. Their work focuses primarily on personal narratives surrounding mental health, queerness, mourning, and healing from trauma. KRT often performs at Joan Dark’s long-running open mic Get On The Stage at Bluestockings Bookstore. They made their Am I Write, Ladies debut last March performing their piece Spring Cleaning. They’re currently working on an upcoming solo cabaret entitled #Trauma, along with many additional future projects!

Interview! Pop-Culture Based Artist and Illustrator Margarita Garza

Guess who graciously accepted my request to interview her via email for this site? Margarita Garza specializes in watercolor art, abstract visual art, and hand-drawn typography. Due to her wide range of pop-culture interests (from cartoons to televisions sitcoms to horror films) her work ranges from lighthearted and humorous to dark and disruptive. She’s also just an all-around nice person. She knows how much I love books and reading and recently surprised me with a collection of my very own custom watercolor bookmarks! You can see more of Margarita’s work on her Insta and Etsy pages. She also has two shows coming up: Plano Artfest (April 27-28) and East Main Arts Festival (May 4).

Have you always identified as an artist? If so, in what ways were you creative when you were younger? If not, how old were you and what sparked it?

I’ve always felt uncomfortable calling myself an artist until recently. For some reason when I was younger (14-15 years old), I felt calling myself an artist sounded like I was faking it because the doodles and cartoons I was doing wasn’t considered “high art.” It’s definitely gotten easier as of late, but the uneasiness is still somewhat present. I’m not quite sure what sparked my creativity, but I do know that I have many memories of drawing alongside my older sister Lorena, who is also an artist.

How would you describe your current work? Describe the journey that led you to your current medium.

I currently work mainly in watercolors. I also use inks, colored pencil, and acrylic. The journey that led me to work with watercolors was being exposed to watercolor artists on Skillshare. I had this pull that I wanted to try it after seeing these amazing artists work with it as a result. Right now, I would describe my work pop-culture based. I also have a lot of more personal pieces I want to do. At one point during the past few years, I found myself doodling about shows or podcasts I love.

After starting college, I put art and drawing off for a long time. I was enrolled in art classes but, by that time, I had already attached art to graphic design, thus making it feel very work-/career-related. Art didn’t feel personal anymore and it wasn’t something I truly enjoyed like I had before so I stopped doing it for a really long time.

I would try to pick it up here and there but I would inevitably get frustrated with the result because it wasn’t “perfect” and “accurate.” It wasn’t until my late thirties that I rediscovered my love for art. Most of my coworkers were artists and they were just inspiring to be around. I began watching Skillshare videos, a recommendation from one coworker and began exposing myself to all of these artists who were teaching on the platform. I started feeling like I wanted to try watercolor. Watercolor led to trying other mediums and being excited about them as well. The feelings I had when I was younger, expressing myself and not caring if it was perfect or not, returned. I have a distinct memory of being in my car, talking on the phone at the 7-Eleven with my sister Lorena. I told her that I wanted to try all of these things but was hesitant because it would be a waste of money if I bought all the materials and did nothing with them. She told me flat out, “well, just do it.” I did and I’m glad I did because it’s helped me personally and emotionally in so many ways.

I just finished re-reading David Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish. In it, Lynch discusses where ideas come from and what we as artists need to do to create space for ourselves so the ideas come (for example, he meditates). Can you share any of the different ways you try to create space for yourself (both physically and mentally)?

I have a cozy studio that I slowly put together over time. I love the smell of it, too—I think all of the accumulated art products have created the distinct smell. My studio smells like paper to me. When I am in my studio, I take a deep breath, and I’m instantly relaxed. I also give myself breaks if I feel I’ve been working on something too hard.

What are 3 things you would tell/share with your younger artist self?

Don’t quit, keep working at it. Above all don’t diminish the thing that gives you peace and joy just because you think it’s not perfect or accurate or fine art.

Some of your illustrations incorporate words/quotes that are beautifully rendered via hand-drawn typography. Do you believe there is a connection between visual art and the written word? Why or why not? If you do believe there is a connection, are there any books, poems, essays, articles, song lyrics, interviews, etc. that have influenced or inspired you?

I do feel there is a connection between visual art and the written word. Personally, when I see a beautifully hand-lettered phrase I feel more impact depending on what fonts were used. It can elicit laughter, somberness, empathy.

There are a lot of artists that inspire me but the two I’m obsessed with right now are Lisa Cogden and Lauren Hom.

Lisa Cogden is a bad-ass artist who didn’t start her art career until she was 40. She’s written a lot of art books including A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives, which is very inspiring.

Lauren Hom has some of the best hand lettering skills I’ve ever seen. She is also really active with those who follow her on Instagram as well.

Is there anything else that inspires you?

There so many women that inspire me. Currently, I’m listening to a lot of Lizzo and also following a lot of body positive women on Instagram. The body positivity movement has been a big inspiration for me and has also helped me focus on art and self-realization rather than spending time feeding into diet culture. It’s something that I’m currently trying to incorporate into my more personal work.

What is one thing that someone would be surprised to learn about you?

The big one is that I was arrested on a warrant on the same day as my college visual communications senior portfolio review and had to miss it. I still graduated and never went to jail again!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Remember: Your life isn’t over at a certain age.