Samantha Heydt, Chrysanthemums, collaged photograph


Six blind men come upon an elephant. Each feels a different part of the animal, and each establishes his idea of Elephant based on his limited experience: clearly Elephant is a rope (says the blind man feeling the tail), a fan (the ear), a spear (the tusk), a tree (the leg), a wall (the body), a snake (the trunk). They argue vehemently amongst themselves. Finally the king intercedes, and tells them: if you stop arguing and start listening, you might come up with a larger understanding of what this animal is.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with art?

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Sally Taylor talks to a group of interns helping with the Consenses project.

Sally Taylor encountered this fable as an anthropology student at Brown University, and it resonated for her on two different levels. She appreciated it per its original intention, as a metaphor for individuated human existence. “We come to this planet,” she says, “we have these five senses. And once we experience our tiny little sliver of experience, we think we get it all. We disagree with those who disagree with us. It’s this giant story we’ve made up about our righteousness, based on a fear of what we don’t know.”

But the story also resonated for her on a more personal, concrete, and urgent level. Sally is a musical artist, born and bred (her parents are James Taylor and Carly Simon). She was completely immersed in her identity as a musician, but in 1998, while touring, she began to feel that expressing herself through a single medium, appealing to only one of the five human senses, felt “one-dimensional.” She wanted to be a part of a creative enterprise that incorporated every aspect of human sensory experience.

There was no such thing. So, starting in earnest two and a half years ago, she began to create it.

Consenses is a positive riff on the elephant myth: rather than emphasizing the limitations of any individual, it stresses that each individual has a contribution to make to a larger whole, even if they can’t see the larger whole themselves.
The premise is both simple and complex. Sally asked twenty-two photographers to take images that represent different elements of the same thing (a common theme that only she and they knew). Then she took those photographs and used them to initiate “chains” of creative expression. Each of the photos was shown to a different musician, who each created a musical piece inspired by it; the song (but not the photo) was then given to a painter, who painted a picture inspired by it; the painting (but not the song or photograph) was then given to a perfumer (or a tea-maker, or someone who created something that appealed to the sense of smell or taste), who created a perfume (or tea) inspired by it; this was the inspiration for a choreographer to create a dance, which was the fuel of poetry for a poet. She did this with each of the twenty-two photographs. Not every chain contains all possible forms of expression, and not every chain follows the same order of creative possibilities. But generally, that’s the gist of it.

The result is an ambitious confluence of original works of creativity, each with the transcript of an interview with the artist illuminating their process. When it’s finally all put together, it will be the artistic equivalent of the blind men learning from each other about the elephant. “We’re working with 140 artists,” says Sally. “One hundred forty pieces of inspiration. I have a spreadsheet that would reach to New Jersey if I printed it out.”

Allen Whiting. Squibnocket, oil on canvas, 26 x 36"

Allen Whiting. Squibnocket, oil on canvas, 26 x 36″

Part of the challenge of creating Consenses is the impeccability with which Sally chose to curate it. In resonance with the original myth, each artist was blind in that they did not know whose work they were being inspired by, or even (except for the photographers) what the original theme was. Sometimes it took deliberation and effort to maintain the blind integrity — for example, a painting by Allen Whiting could not be given to anyone with a Vineyard connection, who would probably recognize his style and palette and allow the Whiting-awareness to possibly influence their own raw creative impulses. The two hardest identities to mask were James Taylor and Carly Simon, although Sally breezily attributes that more to their being her parents than to their being ubiquitous in American music culture. (“If it was coming from someone else, it wouldn’t have been so obvious,” she says with a disarming smile. “There’s no way that I can get out of the way entirely of the project. The elephant is me, because I’ve chosen the photographs.”) But she did successfully mask them: James Taylor’s musical piece does not include his voice, and Simon’s is “more of a chant,” which includes both Sally and her brother Ben, also a musician, on the track.

Each artist, having blindly received their artistic prompt, had seven days to interpret it. The turnaround was so quick because Sally wanted to get their “immediate reaction, and immediate expression, without letting their egos get in the way.”

The final collection of Consenses material will include photos, songs, dances, paintings, short films, animation, collage, drawing, poetry, character sketches, short scripts, tea, food, fiber art, quilts, fashion, various kinds of sculpture, and jewelry. To present such a creation to its intended audience, Sally needs exhibition space. Luckily for the Vineyard — home to 30 of the 140 international artists on the roster — we have one. The inaugural staging of Consenses will happen at the Festival of the Senses at the Grange Hall, August 18 through 20. This will also be the first time the artists themselves see the work they have inspired in others.

How do you get 140 artists to be involved in such an unusual enterprise? Besides the obvious slew of creatives in the Simon and Taylor clans, and her many Vineyard colleagues, Sally took referrals from within the community of artists she knew, and also did a huge amount of research, seeking artists she thought she would want to work with, looking everywhere from Pinterest posts to award recipients. When she found someone whose work appealed to her, “I’d approach them: Hi, my name’s Sally Taylor, you don’t know me, I’m working on a project. Twenty percent would write back and ask about who else was involved with it, or ask ‘what’s in it for me,’ and I’d say, ‘thank you for your consideration, this is probably not the project for you.’ Ten percent weren’t available. But the vast majority would say, ‘I have got to be involved with this, I can’t wait to explore this!’” While most of her artists are from the United States or Europe, there are participants from as far away as Africa and Japan.

Establishing the participants was only part of her work, of course. “Each medium was a fully new language that I had to learn. When the music came in, I’d ask myself, who do I want to see this through? Whose palette do I want to see this transcribed through? Oh, I need to see what Doug Kent or Allen Whiting would do with this!”

Having made those assignments, she found it thrilling to see each new creation as it came in, describing her reactions with characteristic enthusiasm: “Oh, my God, I would never have seen that! I would never gotten that! How exciting!”
“Recently,” she continues, “I’ve been taking snippets of the interviews from each of the people on one chain, and I don’t know if it’s me interpreting the snippets or if it’s something completely wild, but there are common themes that are really exciting to me. The anthropologist in me is thinking, ‘Don’t you dare think that is really happening, that’s just your own story coming through.’”

She cites as an example a chain that began with a Janet Woodcock photograph of a tree, and then continued on to her brother, Ben, then a collagist, a dancer, a Japanese perfumer, a sculptor, and a poet. “In these interviews, what’s revealed is an interpretation of cosmic harmony, and of birth and death. My brother wanted to create the sound of the roots as they went down into the earth and then left their physicality and then reached up into outer space to rejoin the branches. Then the collagist created an intergalactic collage, because his interpretation of vibrations from Ben’s song were a galactic journey into the abyss, and then the perfumer’s interpretation of the collage was about recognizing her resistance to the unknown, and the dancer, who was eight months pregnant, found the dance in the voice of her unborn child wanting to emerge and find a form.”

There is an obvious allure to the novel, artistic premise of Consenses, but for Sally, this is more than just a cool idea. It points to something much deeper than itself — again, the point made in the elephant fable. As she’s been putting together what will be the Festival of the Senses, she’s also been taking Consenses into schools and artists’ workshops as a way to encourage young people to reconsider their own perceptions.

When talking with students or workshop participants, she first explains the nature of perception using the elephant metaphor, and then shows a film displaying one “chain” (she also passes around the perfume that is part of that chain). Then she asks the students as individuals to title the chain, say what emotion it evokes in them, and tell what they think the common theme of the chain is. Then they all share their responses. “When we have a dialogue about that, we really see the difference of perceptions,” she says. The same chain evokes many different “common themes,” creating “new angles, new windows to peer through, to see the work and each other,” says Sally. “It’s really uniting. It’s a safe way to experience other people’s perceptions that are different from yours without saying that’s wrong or that’s right. It lets you see other people’s vantage points before deciding if they’re right or wrong, in a setting where it’s not dangerous to disagree.”

Sally deeply reveres the artists she is working with, whether they’re students or professionals. “They go out daily into the unknown,” she says, “take a piece of inspiration, and tell themselves a story about it, and then share it. We don’t even do that with our inner thoughts. Artists shares their insides daily, their expression of their reality, daily, and that, to me, is the most courageous thing you can do.”

Excerpts from interviews with artists from one chain of the Consenses project.

 

Silver Brush | Chilmark, MA

Michael Zide. Silver Bush

Michael Zide, Photographer — Silver Bush

Walking back with my two dog companions, we climbed a path that took us along the overhanging cliff that parallels the beach. In the brooding light, the bleached wood of the worn,scrubby brush caught my eye. Whether writhing in pain, or dancing in ecstasy, its twisted branches seemed to continue animating its dead form, resembling an undersea creature caught in the moving currents, denying it the chance to find a peaceful resting place.

Carly Simon, Musician — Puckerbrush

The first emotions . . . that arrived . . . through this photo were anger and fear which emanated from the wiry hair like puckerbrush. But then there was that subtle fog, and clouds in the background, which gave me a feeling of faith. I felt like God might somehow suddenly appear on the scene and . . . save me. I felt as though the image was captured beside a railroad track where nothing could grow. It reminded me of a time as a teenager when I accidentally took an express train out to the Bronx and it brought me all the way out to 125th street in New York City. I had to walk under a railway bridge to get to the other side of the track where I could head back. I was so scared. It was winter and so dark, and I was afraid I was going to step on “the third rail,” or that something terrifying would jump out at me on the other side of the overpass.
I translated the image into jumpy, staccato, frenzied beats and the chant, “Life is angry, life is holy in the puckerbrush” came out.

Stacy Lim, Tea Blender — With Eyes Opened

I meditated after seeing this painting, and what came to me was a story about these characters I named “Tiger God” and “The Fish Woman.” The Fish Woman is looking forward into the future where there are no boundaries, the sky’s the limit, and she’s literally coming out of her shell to signify she is no longer stuck in the past. The Tiger God faces backward into the past and looks over his shoulder at her in judgment and condemnation. To tell this story through my tea, I chose a strawberry-ginger-toffee blend with a dragonwell base. Dragonwell represents the Tiger God. It is one of the oldest, most traditional teas. It’s got a crisp, sea-like taste to it, and it’s light enough not to drag down the hope of the Fish Woman, which I represented with strawberry and wanted to be the overriding flavor. The toffee represents new directions and is the last flavor you taste.

 

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Doug Kent, In the Puckerbrush, mixed media, 18 x 22″Doug Kent, Painter —

 

Doug Kent, Painter — In the Puckerbrush

The song sounded like an English Celtic tune at first. I liked it. It would have been hard for me to create at all if I didn’t like it. I wanted to hear more of it. It’s very short. If I had to sum it up I’d say the song was haunted and was full of mysterious movement. The word “Puckerbrush” recalled to me my younger days in the 1960s when we — James Taylor, Kingman Brewster, Jim Hull, and a bunch of us back then — were all connected through these back, unpaved, puckerbrush-lined roads. We’d all ride our motorcycles or horses up to each other’s houses to hang. I haven’t heard the word puckerbrush since then. I was living in a place off Lambert’s Cove Road at the time and raising goats in my basement. When I made this drawing, I left the song on repeat and the music fed me. This drawing is what came out. When I’m drawing, as opposed to painting, I just let the work come directly through me onto the page without a plan. In this case, the song spoke through me to the page. I was just the filter.

Wes Craven, Director — The Man Who Vanished

Interview:

Sally: Take me through your process.
Wes: Got the tea. Knew I should drink it right away. Procrastinated. Hated myself for procrastinating. Finally drank it. Reminded me of burlap, which reminded me of a time long ago. Began writing without censoring, always dangerous. Pushed send before I could self-redact.
Sally: What part of your work came to you first?
Wes: Too dark to say.
Sally: How do you normally create?
Wes: There isn’t a single thing that’s normal about the way I create. I don’t know where it comes from, and if it can’t be more predictable, I’d prefer it stayed away.
Sally: Did you enjoy this project?
Wes: I prefer eating glass, but I was happy to do it for you. I was brought up on a steady diet of broken glass, and if I’m without it for more than a few days, I get cranky.

The Man Who Vanished

After he had the tea he walked the half mile to the beach, still in pajamas, despite the cold. He took the shortcut through the neighbor’s yard and down into a ravine. It was one of the new summer homes. Its owners wouldn’t know, somewhere warm and distant, that naked feet were crossing their boundary.

He didn’t mind the bite of ice crystals on his feet. He’d felt this cold before, and he’d be even colder soon. Besides, if he’d driven, someone would find his car at the beach in the morning, and know how he’d left.

He preferred to vanish.

The aroma of the tea lingered, like the scent of burlap. It reminded him a night he’d bedded down in a barn in New Hampshire after running away from home. Or from her. He was twenty, stupid, on a small step-through trail bike. He’d arranged some hay bales and laid down, with a blanket improvised from burlap sacks. Then shivered through the night, itching from the harsh weave of the sacks, and wakeful that some farmer would come in and roust him from his sleep. At first light he was up, itching even more, and found the creatures on him. Small brown bugs. Everywhere. And the burlap was crawling with them.

They hadn’t stung. He never found out what they were. They just used his warmth to get through the night, as he had their burlap. He’d gone home to her and they’d never separated again until this year. Six months ago she’d just made herself that cup of tea. Sat down at the table, then slumped forward and was gone.

He’d kept the cup and tea until now.

The ravine dropped sharply until it found the dirt road that led down to the sea. He’d taken this way many times as a boy, when the war was on and German periscopes bristled just off-shore.

But there were no periscopes this night. The sea was empty as a hearse waiting outside the church.

He walked into the swells, knowing she would be waiting for him.

Up to his chest, the cold knifing through him; he barely felt the shark. She lifted him almost gently, like a lover, then, glimmering like a silver coin dropped in a well with a wish too naïve and succulent to be ignored, she vanished with her prize in the darkness below.

 

Festival of the Senses will be staged at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, August 18 through 20. Eight entire chains will be presented, and 14 additional ones shared digitally, along with opportunities for viewers to respond creatively on interactive media boards to all the chains. The festival will include workshops and evening performances. More info at consenses.org.