What Do You Say?


My friend said she couldn’t come to the phone. Her daughter was about to have a baby, could she call me back?

Then, she called to say her husband had died.

Life handed her the fullness of life, and death, one fistful after another, leaving her with a sleeping baby in an empty house. 

It has been quite a week, she said.  And suddenly, there was nothing more to say.

No words that could comfort or haven’t been said before.

But there is something to give.

Understanding the cycle of giving and receiving is at the heart of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.  

“ for it is in giving that we receive”

In life, even in death, life gives. We can give, too.

We can greet each morning with the simple intention of creating everyday joy. In every act, in every moment. We can be kind.

To a friend who is having a hard time, we can give time. We can listen. We can wait. We can make space for her to receive the fullness of our love. And in return, we receive a full and joyful life.

I think Henry James captures the essence of this best:

To Be Kind

Three Things in Human Life Are Important.
The First Is To Be Kind.
The Second Is To Be Kind.
And the Third Is To Be Kind

And there is nothing more you need to say.

Elevator Pitch


No one ever sold a painting in an elevator.

The elevator pitch is a ridiculous idea because the metaphorical elevator is an even more ridiculous place to make a pitch.

Someone has given you their attention. You are eager to launch into who you are, what you do and why they should care in the space of a few vertical minutes. The person smiles politely and casually eyes the door.  You might even harbor an unsettling suspicion that this person is wondering, “Oh, great! How am I going to get out of here?”

We all want to share what we do with the world. Yes, there are challenges in doing this but the real problem here is that your elevator pitch is all about you and not anyone else.

And what you can get.

Everyone else is reduced to person who could buy your work, fund your project or do something that benefits you. Your energy reflects that point of view and people can sense that immediately. Once they do, they will not trust you and promptly get off on the next floor.

What if you did an elevator ask instead of an elevator pitch? What if you gave the person you are hoping to connect with your attention and began a conversation by asking a question. About them. 

Think about it. If they tell you who they are and what they care about, that means they are beginning to trust you. You can honor that trust by listening so you understand what they want whether or not it is something you can provide.

The energy changes once you change how you see a person, not as someone you can get something from, but someone you can give your respect to.

They will be the ones who will gladly get your message out in the world because of what you have given them first. Start with respecting them enough to not make a pitch.

Art Warrior

Staring down a blank sheet of paper is the worst.

Even if you go to bed with the best intentions of rising with the sun, deciding what you are going to make, grabbing your list of Things That Must Be Created Today as you shuffle bleary eyed to your desk, organizing your pencils and perhaps, managing to make a few marks on paper, it is still entirely possible that fate will wedge itself between you and your precious work time and there you are. Frustrated, annoyed at yourself, while those pesky little demons hiss songs of self doubt and self sabotage as you stare at your empty inbox and – empty sheet of paper.

This happens to me a lot.

It also happens to artists, writers, entrepreneurs, inventors and poets posing as clock punching office workers. It happens to retirees with time on their hands and no more excuses. It happens to the author with the runaway best selling first novel losing sleep over writing her second. It happens to graduates watching the ink dry on their diplomas, teachers of those graduates, engineers, doctors, postal workers and anyone who with a desire to make life better and more beautiful.

It doesn’t happen to art warriors.

It doesn’t happen to people who grasp the moment to create with every one of their senses tingling and on edge. People who take on the battle against the distractions closing in on them as if their lives depended on it. With a humble pencil in their hand poised as a sword. A sword that is not used for slicing potatoes in the kitchen but for seizing the prize.

How to unleash your inner art warrior

You can create a body of work you are proud to share with the world. You can make a life around being a dynamic creative force through your unique voice. You have everything you need to make this your daily reality. You, yes, you can be an art warrior.

Take a moment to consider the most common question artists ask themselves and compare it to the deeper inquiry art warriors demand of themselves.

Artists: What can I make today?

Art Warrior: What difference can I make for you today?

Art created simply as self expression is scream therapy in a gilt frame

For an art warrior, something worthy of being created is something that makes a difference that brings us closer to the wonder of who we are to each other.

Our fight is to bring something into the world that can direct our gaze together and towards each other. Something not just for people to admire, but to inspire their own inner warriors to believe in a better and more beautiful life.

The power of your answer

Knowing why you create something transforms your work into a mission to make life better for someone else. As an artist, you can make something that leave some mysteries, some unfinished thoughts, some breadcrumbs for another person to create their own path through the forest.

Knowing how you want people to feel infuses every act you take with purpose. It is easier to discard what doesn’t serve your end goal and stay focused.

Knowing who you are making art for transforms your creativity into an act of grace. Warriors move in grace and with gratitude. We acknowledge the wonder of being alive in this moment. We are grateful we have the chance to make something.

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others” – Mary Shelley

Grab your sword and get out of the kitchen.

What I Can Do

Me, drawing

When I am upset or feeling angry, I start drawing circles on whatever piece of paper is in front of me. Sometimes I can cover an entire sheet of newspaper with insistent little spheres that magically take the edge off my emotions and turn themselves into faces, bodies, people, entire universes that sometime pop up on my Instagram. I take a few deep breaths and feel better immediately.

I like knowing I can make something with my hands, something that is my response, my giving back in a way, to the world I am in. A call and response which feels like a kind of conversation where there is an exchange: angst for art.

This happens to me every day I sit down at my desk to make something. I get upset with myself for not knowing what I am doing and I get angry for not making better stuff. Now, with seemingly endless amounts of time on our hands due to the pandemic reshuffling the rhythms of our former lives, there is more time and more opportunity to torment myself over this.

I look around me and I see the rest of the world has finally arrived. Dishevelled, confused, out of breath, wild eyed and indignant about it, in great need of a chair to sink into, looking frantically for a drink to console themselves with, everyone is now facing the daunting question of artists: what to make of my life.

I picture Zadie Smith , the unapologetic author of Intimations, a wonderful collection of 6 essays, leaning back on a bench watching the bewildered crowd with amusement as they stumble over each other in their quest to create The Next Really Big Important Work in order to make something of their lives.

Zadie Smith in New York.

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do,” she writes. For Smith, why she writes is very simple. “It’s something to do.”


A banana bread and her gorgeous writing?

I think back to my sheets of circles and suddenly I remember that it feels good to have a pen in my hand and watch it move over paper leaving slow and thoughtful marks. And if I keep drawing, the next things I draw are not born of frustration or anger, but of joyful curiosity. What else can I draw? What words can I put with it? What, 4 hours have passed already?

Perhaps that is the best thing we can do with our time. What we need to do with our time. Make something good, no matter how simple or humble, and let it exist in the world.

Zadie Smith also says that writing is something she needs to do to stay alive. For me, it feels like a little death every day I don’t give myself the space to make something, or to make something happen. Whether I am drawing odd shaped people or writing a story about the odd shaped people or making coffee ice cream for a friend, I am grateful to be gloriously alive doing it.

As she puts it: “I just do the thing I can do.”

Works for me.

Asking is the Art of Activism

Sharon Chin, 2019 ACP Art Commissioner

Can great works of music, dance and theatre – pieces that are brought to life in a performance and experienced as inspired moments – change who we think we are as people?

Certainly, what we think a hero looks like and sounds like comes from the stories we read and the art we live with. We are shown works of art and told what is beautiful and what is not. Who is worthy of our attention and who is not. What works are valuable and who they are for. This particular point of view begins the minute we start exploring the world around us. It will last forever unless we do something about it. And that can start with something as simple as asking a question.

As someone who was a young child watching a fierce and unapologetic Leonard Bernstein on the podium in Lincoln Center during his Young People’s Concerts, pointing to his nose saying, “Of course you can’t paint your face with an F sharp! But that is not what notes are for. If the music makes you change inside and gives you all those feelings it can, then it has done its job.” I distinctly remember saying to myself, “Hey, that’s what I think too!” I would be just like him when I magically became an adult, and wondered what the musical world around me would be like.

Did I really expect I would be part of such a world? Of course. Do I feel cheated? Absolutely. Didn’t I notice that conductors don’t look like me?

My feet barely reached the pedals when I began to understand what was really within my reach. As surely as night follows day, I took piano lessons. I marched up on stage and primly performed the three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I memorized 32 Beethoven sonatas over the years and somehow understood that this is what little Chinese girls did. What I remember clearly is being annoyed about being told by other people what I was expected to be good at. What if I am not what the world wants me to be?

In Salzburg, I played student recitals in the rococo Kunsthalle of the Mozarteum. And yes, this beautiful place is just like the Sound of Music with snow capped mountains and all that lederhosen. This time, I began wondering why all the music we listened to, learned, and performed was by dead white European males. “Because that is the way of the musical universe,” quickly intoned living white European males as the question died in my throat. Why is the world set up this way?

I discovered Joan Tower, the wonderful composer of Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman #6, and that she cheerfully calls them DWEM (dead white European men). She has a lot of great things to say about being a woman composer in this episode of Conversation with Composers presented by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I was ecstatic: I was not crazy. I was not alone. I was right. But a part of me was still disappointed: why were her strongest influences white male composers – Copland, Stravinsky, Messaien?

In my last year at the Manhattan School of Music, I sought out work by composers who were not DWEM. I learned Roger Sessions’ Piano Sonata No. 2, mostly in defiance and less successfully as repertoire. It dawned on me that I was woefully deficient in his tonal language. So many things in the music puzzled me and frustrated my ability to get into the soul of it.

One evening, I went to hear a string quartet reading through a new piece by the composer Milton Babbitt and was astonished to hear people in the audience tell him things, what they liked, what they didn’t like. What sounded good to them, what the music made them feel. And he listened! He included them in his creative process. Is this how composers create music?

It should be.

 About 3 years ago, I submitted a proposal to the Scherman Foundation for the Artist Commissioning Program (ACP). The core philosophy of this program was to reinvent the perception of commissioning art to become part of the new American canon, by asking more questions beginning with:

How does art change when the lens of privilege is removed?

ACP successfully received funding to democratize art commissioning, a historically privileged process for a select few. This program invited local community members to serve as Art Commissioners who would award $10,000 commissions to 4 choreographers, playwrights and composers for new works that tell untold stories highlighting underrepresented protagonists. The goal was to create a cultural sector more reflective of the diversity of Queens and the nation.  

by Noelle Salaun
Fierce Urgency of Now Microgrant awardee

I had a wonderful opportunity to explore new questions with Sharon Chin, a 2019 ACP Commissioner who is a Queens native with a deep sense of pride for the artistic and cultural heritage of her hometown. She has a wide range of interests including swing and tango dancing, writing poetry and managing The Fierce Urgency of Now Microgrants program. You can learn more on her blog, the Creative Sanctum.

What is the change in the world you are most passionate about working towards?

Being able to participate in that selection process was incredibly empowering of a lot of the principles that I believe that are important for democracy, philanthropy.

I look at the change I want to see in the world in a philosophical sense. I look at working towards a world with greater equity. And when you think about equity, you can apply that across race, gender, health care, education… I have a long history of studying human rights so no matter what I do, all my efforts go towards achieving that goal.

What is still invisible that you feel deserves to be celebrated in American culture?

I am a poet and in a lot of my work, I choose to use the techniques of documentary poetry and erasure to talk about what is really invisible in American culture.

It is type of poetry where you look at actual historical documents and events. You extend the text of the document to describe what is not there on paper, you describe voices of those who are present but not being represented, you bear witness to excluded multitudes. For example, last year was the 150th anniversary of the Trans Continental Railroad. When the official photo was taken showing where the two roads connected, there were all of the investors, politicians, bankers, but not the Chinese laborers who actually built the railroad. The contributions of the Chinese in America were not part of the official record.

All these stories that exist are not represented in the official history or documents, in media or Hollywood. There are all these untold stories that are a huge part of what makes up American culture and are a bona fide part of the story.

One of the most common techniques in documentary poetry is erasure. If I took the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, I could strip words out to reveal an inner voice or an inner monologue of what a slave might hear seeing those words.

If I played back The Star Spangled Banner, how does it sound when you hear certain words or phrases like “land of the free”? Who is that true for?

Do you have a preference in how you can support artists: commissioning an artist to create a work or giving a grant to support an artist?

I have made 8 grants in visual arts, music and dance. I’m very aware of the history of how foundation giving works, how donor advised funds work, how often the giving depends on the whims of whoever is in charge of the giving and how precarious that make the work of nonprofits so in my microgrant program, I wanted all my grants to be unrestricted. A lot of philanthropy came about because of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a very few, and through technology and the growth of the middle class in America, and awareness, you are able to play a role, you are able to take things into your own hands and make a contribution.

When I saw the ACP program, it was the same idea. I can make the change I want to see. What is the change I want to see, where do I want my money to go? I could give my money to an organization that does this kind of work, or I could do it myself.

I have a personal interest in philanthropy because I want the money to get into people’s hands as quickly as possible so they can have ownership over their process. I decided to create the program on my own, I wanted to be more personally involved and not just have an impact by giving money. It was important for someone like me who wants a long term contribution as a philanthropist.

Why is this work important to you?

The way you get people to talk about political things is to have a good looking Trojan horse.

You take a topic and wrap it in the context of art or music that invites people to have a conversation about things that are truly critical and important. I am a firm believer in the power of art to cause these conversations, to create the dialogue, to potentially spur people to action and because I recognize that role, I know who I am and what capacities I have and how I can best support that in this world.

I may not be the artist to put my voice out there but I can use my capabilities and my strengths to make sure those who have incredibly strong messages, to give them a strong platform and stage. That is something that I seek to do.

If I can empower more people to create more empathy, action and activism, that’s an honor.