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Howe Gelb on Vic Chesnutt and other musical collaborations

23 Dec

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“i like the way my sentences flow before you wrangled them.”

This is the most memorable sentence Howe Gelb wrote to me during the process of interviewing him via e-mail in September 2011. And no, the lower case “i” in his proclamation is not a mistake…

Out in the Sonoran Desert, where ancient rocks are strewn like giant grains of sand, there still exists a zealous bastion of linguistic obstinacy – in the spirit of cummings, Chomsky, Wolf and Dickinson – who eschews being edited (even slightly) and highly prioritizes a very personal orthographic preference.

Howe Gelb is both poet and innovator, and as such requires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own chosen cadence, tempo, beat and pause. He explains it thusly: “i always thought the more stripped down a writing is, the more like a rough mix it appears. and i adore rough mixes, often favoring them over final mixes.”

Howe typed the answers you read here exactly the way he wanted them to appear and requested that they be provided sans capital letters. I have thus refrained from any wrangling and am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: In The Guardian, Giant Sand is described “as a loose, uncompetitive, mutually supportive musical collective, a place for friends to hang out and play” and you are quoted as saying, “i just liked the idea of having this kind of removed world, this brotherhood—the idea of a band being something more than a front person or dealing with the throes of fame.” How do you maintain that sense of brotherhood, quell the egos involved, keep that supportive workshop feeling and not let a famous personality or leader mentality take over so you can create an egalitarian atmosphere in which to make music?

Howe: the side effect of popularity or relative fame and fortune has never been very appealing… its outcome looks annoying… a more ‘blue collar’ approach to sonic existence seems more comfortable and i reckon that’s what we ultimately ever shoot for, that standard of comfort in this life to get the job done and enjoy the doing along the way, taking in the end of the day with an exhaustion that merits.

this template allows for an enormous amount of output as well as permits the actuality of raising a family instead of sacrificing one for the other. just enough ‘ego’ needs to be implemented to be able to enjoy the stage as a work space and not let it crush your skull or stomp your heart by its imposing loom.

members in the band will feel like minded. those that eventually don’t will be able to use the premise to spring board into their own mesh of how ambition and sonic deployment can be then tailored to suit their own needs once they leave the fold.

that said, there is a compiling strain from years on the road that instigates needed perks along the way in order to facilitate longevity. things like upgrades in air travel and better hotel rooms. a lack of stanky rock clubs in lieu of more sensible venues to dispense more properly in theater like confines. this can get tricky when the music has remained unknown enough and not easily categorized. it takes some creative promotion as the years spin by to continue delivering anything vital outside of mass appeal.

but that is the music i have always been drawn to. the rhetoric of a rehearsed set of music by bands determined to get to the next level actually makes me a little sea sick. probably an allergic reaction to honing the craft in a way so as to never allow the gamble of a unique night of music to come into play. i tend to avoid bands that work the crowd instead of expanding their sound nightly through immediate evolution where risk is a flavor and the outcome is worth it.

Frances: As alluded to in the song “Fields of Green,” you mentored and spawned many bands around the Tucson area. You “lift up” others in your performances regularly. I was in the Old Pueblo when I first heard you play live and got turned on to the wonderful music of the late Rainer Ptacek. How would you describe your collaboration with Rainer as well as your philosophy as a musical mentor?

Howe: that’s a loaded question.

when rainer and i met in the mid 70s, i recognized something in him instinctually. something i could never define till years later. when i have stumbled upon bands or band members that i’d chosen to be part of this sonic fabric, it has been in similar fashion, but none so important to me as rainer was, maybe because i was only 19 at the time, but mostly because of the spirit of the man. it’s a blessing and a curse, this sonic life, when the energy is in play, a music occurs and it’s the best of times. you can see it swirl on stage between conjuring implementers. when the energy is not harbored into play, it’s a an impish storm that confuses and sparks the room in chaos.

all rainer and i ever verbally agreed to was to make a music that would not embarrass us 20 years into the future. so we took our cues from strident elements of historical proportions and mixed them up with a state of exploratory endeavors that would serve the future the way we noticed it had gone on long before us. and along the way we collected a vast assortment of young ‘lifers’ stained with the same urgency.

Vic Chesnutt is on the far right of this group of friends at the Barbican 10 years ago.

Frances: You were also friends with the late Vic Chesnutt, whose passing two years ago at Christmas is still mourned by all who knew him. One of my favorite songs is “Classico,” and I love the way you have two versions on “Is All Over the Map” – to me, it sounds like a song Vic would write. How would you characterize his contribution to modern folk/alt music and how did that collaboration come about?

Howe: vic was the greatest american singer songwriter i have ever had the pleasure of knowing. he was the only true definition of the term i have ever witnessed. his songs were monsters, meaning massive wondrous plunks of existence, and his voice was impossibly enormous and soulful beyond measure.

he was the best. and his constant struggle in this life is never to be fully realized by the likes of us. he toured incessantly by his sheer singular will. and he was one of my favorite guitar players, attacking it in a way that was severely refreshing, making each note matter more than any i’ve ever heard, except for rainer. i loved him so. this world is less now without him, but him being here at all was a great gift and a continuous inspiration still.

as for ‘classico,’ i was still trying to write a song for marianne faithfull to sing, since my buddy polly was working on her record at the same time, but instead vic came to town and i know an omen when i see one.

Frances: I think your lyrics, and the way they work with the music, are what fascinate me most about Giant Sand. Some of the lyrics are so comical, and almost silly-seeming, that many song writers might be “afraid” to use them and therefore couldn’t pull them off. (Example: “I poured me cranberry juice there on the floor letting it flow on the mirror under the door” – I recall laughing out loud the first time I heard this song.) How does your sense of humor inform your confidence in songwriting and… yep, the age-old “which came first” question: Do you compose lyrics or music first… or is it a combination?

Howe: that’s the age-old question… but there is never an age-old answer.

songs happen when they care to and however they dare to. there is no way to count on them or formulate the process. i have the ability to utilize my disability. songs are the event once you clear yourself of everything else inside you. they are there waiting to happen.

singing songs that you make up on the spot is a matter of lying to yourself that they have been around forever, and then they sound like they have been.

humor and sex are important elements in song. to be able laugh at life and how it clobbers us is also a great way to make an otherwise difficult point to put across. to rework the essence of how we procreate as a species is the stuff that needs to be addressed more often than not.

anyhow… the song you mention with sliding a mirror under the door and pouring cranberry juice on it was a reflection of lament and dement in my time of languishing the loss of my former rhythm section, who have done well, but sadly still fail to include those two basic elements in their material. but once they read this, that will change too.

Frances: When I want to relax without lyrics, I go to “Spun Some Piano” and “Lull Some Piano” for a change. Although many of your Giant Sand songs are sans piano, you are often described as a piano virtuoso. How did you learn to play and who were your main influences?

Howe: wilkes-barre, pennsylvania is flooding as we speak. the susquehanna river is an eventual monster. 40 years ago it knocked on our door and raised up six feet over our roof. that’s what sent me to arizona where my dad was living. it also smashed the piano to bits i never practiced on. with the flood relocation money i bought me a univox electric piano and drove the apartment complex nuts we were evacuated to. but that’s where it started. i learned how to play “all the way to memphis” by mott the hoople all the while i began discovering piano players in the “cheap” bin at the record store. champion jack dupree, memphis slim, and otis spann got me started. tommy flanigan and ahmad jamal (both whom i had the pleasure of seeing live), mcoy tyner and oscar petersen, kept me following the thread, until i finally hit the payload with thelonious sphere monk.

after the two you mentioned came “ogle some piano” …and now this month comes “snarl some piano” which actually manages to free you up when in a traffic snarl, if played in its entirety. money back guarantee. i think.

Frances: Your vocals lend themselves to duos with a soft, naïve female voice. Examples I enjoy are “No Tellin” and “Love A Loser” from “Blurry Blue Mountain.” What characteristics work best for this type of duo?

Howe: i would have much preferred to have been a player in a band with a great singer, but I didn’t want to wait for that to ever happen, so just handled the chore myself.

lonna beth kelley is the woman you mention in those BBM songs and I find her voice such a fine smolder. we try to bring her on the road to have her open as much as possible. I adore her lip flip, but also the hang time on the road. she’s a comfort zone and a smile waiting to happen. funny as hell too.

Frances: You obviously have a loyal and astute audience who knows your disposition and irreverent approach to fusing elements from most every musical genre. What is your relationship to your audience and how much do you care/not care what they think of your creations?

Howe: it’s scary seeing how every kind of music has such similar thread. any song can be done up in any genre. it’s there in front of us. i just try and get to it as much as possible. because of my tin ear, it all just sounds like me doing up my usual muck-a-luck.

anyhow, i tend to make the same music my audience would make if they allowed themselves the time to work it up themselves. so they pay me to do it instead. like hiring a plumber.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Please also read my Sept. 11 interview with Howe Gelb here.

Howe Gelb remembers Sept. 11 in “NYC of Time”

10 Sep

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“NYC of Time,” the second track on Giant Sand’s 2004 offering, Is All Over the Map, pays homage to the resilience of New York City and delivers a deeply felt encouraging word to all who were affected by the devastation of September 11.

Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Giant Sand’s front man Howe Gelb is no stranger to The Big Apple. I interviewed him recently about the city, the song and the events of ten years ago. Howe is both a poet and an innovator, and as such desires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own in cadence, tempo, beat and pause. This interview was conducted via e-mail, Howe typed his answers exactly the way he wants them to appear and requested that they be provided here sans capital letters. I am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: You lived in New York City not one but three decades ago, when you were heading up your first band, Giant Sandworms. What was your experience like and what do you remember most about living and playing there?

Howe: i lived there in 1981 in the lower east side with my band for a year when living there was a daily danger. it was like a city attacking itself back then, but it always made more sense somehow than any other violent place. that time there lent itself in a way that made everywhere i’ve ever been since, easy by comparison. it was a training grounds to survive the time there then with our fledging band. adventures like being mugged and playing cbgb’s and wandering the streets all night became part of strength and fiber needed for continuance in me. i loved the time spent there then, no matter how tough it was, now only respect the place more since that day 10 years ago that dared to show what its people are made of and how to deal with horrors beyond anyone’s imagination.

Frances: One of the most compelling tunes on Is All Over the Map, “NYC of Time” makes the acronym “NYC” into the word “nick,” as in a cut, scratch, gash or dent – and as in the adage “in the nick of time.” Its climax contains the ironic yet triumphant line, “New York, there’s more to you now that something isn’t there,” which I take to be a direct reference to the city’s way of coping with the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Howe: of course it is. the horror of that day was of biblical proportions. we as a species deal with it and continue finding ways to fall in love and live on no matter the consequences of this existence. new york being as intense as it always has been is probably the only place on earth to take it on the chin and continue to be even greater than before. it’s like what happens to martyrs; they become more powerful after their destruction.

Frances: How do you feel looking back to 10 years ago and how do you hope people who hear the song “NYC of Time” will interpret what I and many of your fans consider a bright, powerful and uplifting tribute?

Howe: i still say prayers for those that were on those planes. to envision them in that ordeal and send them the kind of thoughts and real energy from this life in hopes of some connection and embrace beyond this place. especially the mothers and children and the words they must have spoken to comfort each other in those final moments. the babies and the mothers on those planes, how they embraced each other in a way of representing the best quality of us as a species and the love that binds more than anything. then to all the countless people from such immensely varied cultures in the towers that only new york could ever accumulate, and how they then had to cope with their final moments and plunge into the next world with such conviction they never knew they had in them until that moment.

the song “nyc of time” pales by any comparison, but its thrust is there to help move it all ahead to a better time and place, and a dance to get us there.

nyc of time

new york, big city of dreams
take a bad time and make it better
there on the sidelines
you redefine, redefine, redefine.

n y c… spells nick to me
adjust in space
and just in time
you redesign, redesign, redesign.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

new york, it’s good to have you there
there’s more to you now
that something isn’t there
see it shine. see it shine.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

Listen to the song here.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Image credits: Howe Gelb by George Howard; Twin Towers by Cynthia Cusick.

The artist interview: Mike Coykendall

31 Aug

THIS ARTICLE IS FEATURED ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

It’s January 24, 2011, and I’m driving alone somewhere in Indiana, listening to an Eels CD a friend burned for me. Suddenly a song comes on that demands my full attention and compels me to do something I reserve for life’s most powerful moments: talk out loud to myself. “What IS this? This isn’t the Eels, is it?”

The song’s wise, raspy vocals, world-weary guitar, folksy wistfulness and raw passion stirred deep emotions as I grabbed the CD cover to take a look at the credits. Sure enough, it wasn’t the Eels any more, but the first of six songs tacked onto the end of the CD by none other than Mike Coykendall. But who was he?

By that night I had learned that Mike’s last name is pronounced “Kirkendall,” that he is a studio engineer who has produced and toured with M. Ward, that he used to have a band called the Old Joe Clarks and has created two solo records, which I immediately downloaded (my first Itunes purchases, incidentally, lest you think I do this sort of thing all the time).

Before long, Mike and I were Facebook friends. We corresponded off and on about music for several months, he shared with me the demo of his upcoming release, and just last month, I got to meet him and his wife and musical partner, Jill Coykendall, in Portland, Ore., where they live. First I got to see them perform with their band, The Golden Shag, and then we met for coffee at the Albina Press one morning.

Frances: You’ve been making music since you were quite young, heading up Wichita-based rock band Klyde Konnor from 1984 to 1991. What are your earliest musical memories and how was your family instrumental in your creative development?

Mike: My parents were encouraging with regards to music, especially my mother. The earliest music I recall was my mother singing to me. She sang the songs that had been sung to her as a child and added to that some songs she’d learned from going to movies as a child in the 1940s. Beyond that, there was the music I heard when my mom took me to the Baptist church every Sunday; I wasn’t really paying attention, but it was there. My dad liked music too, but thought it was a bad road to go down professionally: no way to make a living. He kept the radio on in the car and listened strictly to country music. My older sister Kathy would sometimes take command of the radio when my mother was driving so I remember hearing “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey” by McCartney. That one got my attention because I had an Uncle Albert and I thought it was about him.

Frances: How old were you when you first performed in front of people?

Mike: Performing in front of people was something that I did before I can even really remember it. Probably because of my mother singing to me, I could sing complete songs at around age two – before I could really speak. Anyway, I was that freakish baby that they would stand up on the counter at the grocery store, or bank, or restaurant and ask him to sing. Then I would. Loudly. Those were my first performances. Evidently I didn’t like doing it because at age 3 or 4 my mother told me in private that if I didn’t want to sing at those places all I had to do was say no. So, I started saying no and never did that again.

Frances: When did you first begin to write songs?

Mike: I remember that I made up a song when I was about 5 or 6. It was a nice melody. Kind of schmaltzy and in waltz time. After that, I remember goofing around on this old upright piano that we had in our house. Just improvising. Often on only the black keys. No big deal, but I knew I could make stuff up and feel it. Then at 14 or 15 I consciously started trying to write guitar songs as I had my first “rock” band around that time. Those songs were pretty bad as I was only imitating my heroes. Poorly.

Frances: How did you first get into recording and what was the draw?

Mike: My interest in recording started in my late teens. I guess it was because by that time I realized that the recording studio had made possible much of the more experimental pop/rock music that seemed to be my favorite stuff. You could double a vocal, put backwards sounds on… things that are impossible to do live. So, I wanted to learn how to do that.

Frances: For decades, your wife Jill has been a major musical collaborator, supporter, player in your bands. What is the musical aspect of your relationship like?

Mike: We both work very hard in our own ways, often on our own. Working together is great, but we don’t do it as much as you might think. We’re both the same in that we need to practice on our own a lot; we give each other tons of space. We push and pull, inspire and encourage and respect each other musically.

Frances: The two of you moved from Kansas, to California, to Oregon. How do you compare those locations and how they inspired you musically? What is it about Portland that creates the right space for your home and musical work now?

Mike: I guess Kansas was great in that there were few distractions. Also, you were kind of out there on your own and there wasn’t that much music happening locally. So it was easy to get a gig and to start trying stuff out. San Francisco was great for the opposite reason. It was the anti-Kansas. It toughened me up, made me work even harder and focus a bit more. Plus it was really good for exposing me to all types of music; that’s where I really got into non-rock musics. (Great record stores down there.) I didn’t listen to rock at all for about five years in the ’90s. San Francisco made me sick of rock but offered me this wealth of options.

Portland was seen as a city that offered enough culture but also a laid back, friendlier lifestyle. We moved here in ’99 and at the time I really thought that I was going back to the sticks a little. It turned out to be a hot-spot for musician dreamers and wannabes – just like me. Also, it provided us a little more physical space, which allowed me to get into doing recordings for other artists, usually in my home.

Frances: You’ve collaborated with an international community of musicians, among them the likes of M. Ward, Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams. In terms of creative satisfaction, how do you compare playing and working with other musicians on their creations as opposed to creating your own songs and doing musical things on your own?

Mike: Well… M. Ward, I’ve collaborated with a bunch. We just get each other musically. It clicks. He’s great to work with. All four of those other artists you mention are people that I met through him once he started having success. I haven’t recorded Gillian. I just played a few musical performances with her and David Rawlings as part of the M. Ward thing.

As for comparing my own projects to being someone who helps others with their projects… well, I like both. Helping others pays better (so far). It’s great to be a part of someone else’s group so I don’t have to worry about promoting. I just get into the song and play it as well and inspired as I can as if it were my own. But it’s not – so I don’t take it as personally.

Frances: The band you currently head up is known as the Golden Shag. How does this group of musicians differ from and/or take something from your previous ensemble incarnations such as the Old Joe Clarks and even Klyde Konnor?

Mike: It’s the same and different. The Golden Shag probably falls somewhere in between Old Joe Clarks and Klyde Konnor. Old Joe Clarks was very disciplined and serious. Klyde Konnor was much more haphazard. The Shag is a little of both those things. Also, Klyde Konnor was about being in your 20s. Old Joe Clarks was the 30s. The Shag is the 40s. Each decade makes getting a group together and finding the time to rehearse much more difficult. Lives become more complicated. We’re doing pretty good, considering. It’s a great group of friends.

Frances: The first songs I heard of yours have remained two of my favorites: “Outward & Beyond” and “Wasted Star.” When we chatted about this, you assumed the versions I was hearing were from the Old Joe Clarks album November, only released in Europe. We later figured out they are from a short EP that was never sold commercially. Can you talk a little bit about the writing of these two songs and what they mean to you?

Mike: That EP you heard them on first was taken from a series of guitar/vocal recordings that I made for my dad back in 2005 or 2006. M. Ward heard them and wanted me to offer a few of them on an EP as a free giveaway with purchase from the M. Ward table. I guess kind of a way to get my stuff out there. I was never sure if it worked or not but now I know it did! Most of the songs I recorded were old Country covers as that is what my father liked (he never really “got” my originals).

“Outward and Beyond” was one of the last songs I wrote while living in San Francisco. I think I tied up a few loose ends on it shortly after moving to Portland. Anyway, I almost always carry a notebook with me so I can scribble words. I remember writing those lyrics while sitting in Golden Gate Park. I was trying to make sure that the words reflected accepting, moving, and being positive about all that comes your way as best you can. Then I put it to music later using a slowed down rhumba feel that seemed to work with the meditative quality of the whole thing.

“Wasted Star” was written shortly after moving to Portland. I remember being in the kitchen with my boom box cassette recorder. Just streaming / improvising things on guitar. Seeing what happens. When I do this, I’ll often sing words mixed with things that “sound” like words. Then later on, when I have the patience, I’ll go back and listen and then try to decipher the mixture of words and mumbles. That’s how this song came along. There it was, it grabbed me and it sounded like something that could be finished off with very little work. One of those that kind of just happened. I know I tweaked the improvised lyric a little later so some of it was conscious. I was just happy that it wasn’t another ballad! The Old Joe Clarks always needed these precious rockers (I tend to be a ballad king).

Frances: Your self-produced albums as Mike Coykendall, Hello, Hello, Hello in 2005 and The Unbearable Being of Likeness in 2009, demonstrate your ability to create combinations of folk rock and psychedelia and to engineer unique ambient sounds in the studio. Probably my favorite songs on those are “Top of the World,” “If I Only Knew” (which I just wish was longer!), “It’s Raining Inside” and “Bye-Bye-Baby-O.” How did you approach these albums/songs musically, philosophically, creatively?

Mike: Well, those two albums that you mention were for the most part recorded during the same time period, 2003-2005. Right after the last Old Joe Clarks record. I found myself without a live band and spending my time recording other artists in my home studio. I’d always wanted to make some adventurous studio records where I experimented with sounds. It seemed to be the right time to do it. So, whenever I had a day or two free, I’d just mess around in the studio. Sometimes I had a song already written, sometimes I would just lay stuff down and build on it until it became something or didn’t.

Each of the songs you mention were not written before the recording process began. “Top of the World” was just started with the acoustic part, then I layered on the other stuff. At some point I added the vocal, which was just a reaction to the sound and feeling of the music. “If I Only Knew” was started with a high-strung electric guitar part played through some pedals. It’s an “old time-ish / bluegrass” type lick if you play it on a standard tuning acoustic, but when played the way I did it sounded different and weird. The song is the length it is because that is as long as I played that first improvised basic track (I record on tape so no looping in the digital realm). Anyway, the lyrics were later taken out of one of my notebooks because I wanted to sing on it. “It’s Raining Inside” began as just the guitar riff. I wanted to do a guitar riff song that day as I tend to be a chord strummer. My attempt at a “Lucifer Sam” or “Day Tripper” kind of thing. I then spent a little time on the lyric but not too much. “Bye-Bye-Baby-O” was based off that incessant two-chord acoustic guitar that I put down at one point and then wrote/recorded the rest later. I mixed it but then forgot about it for a while. The lyric is full of dark humor. Musically it’s kind of a mess but it works with the lyric and overall feeling.

Frances: You’ve produced records for Blitzen Trapper, Tin Hat Trio, Pancake Breakfast, Richmond Fontaine and She & Him in the past five years as well. How do you strike a balance between the work you do for others to make a living and dedication to your own creative projects?

Mike: I usually put the work that pays the bills first on the list. Then I see where there are gaps in my schedule – or they just happen. I do my stuff then. I consider myself lucky to be able to work for and with other artists. I try to bring my best to every session. So, I’ve tended to place my own creative projects second. I still spend a lot of time doing my own stuff, but more as a release and for fun. I obsess but I don’t stress. It’s been a new way of working and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s been fun to get freaky again after the ’90s, when I really worked hard and focused on craft with Old Joe Clarks.

Frances: How do you feel musicians have had to adapt to the new economic realities?

Mike: Being a musician in the current economy… it’s tough. Tougher than ever. Records aren’t selling that well and you need to tour to get the word out. Touring costs are expensive and there is tons of competition in major markets. It’s an insane way to try and make a living, but some have made it work. Most musicians I know work day jobs (just as I did from ’84 to ’04). Hopefully they find jobs that allow them to tour if they get a chance. Those jobs are hard to come by. Also, they have to keep their rent as low as possible, like maybe live in someone’s converted garage, for example.


Frances: Upon listening to your new double CD release, I found similarities in various songs to influences as diverse as Robert Plant, the Hollies, Gillian Welch, Tony Rice, Howe Gelb, Rainer Ptacek, Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson and James McMurtry. It puts me in mind of the tone of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and The Band’s Music from Big Pink. But you actually based the initial blueprint for the record on an album by one of your primary influences, the Beatles, right?

Mike: Yes. For a year or so, while making this record, I played a secret game with myself by trying to use the Beatles White Album as my template and plugging my songs into their running order by some similarity or loose association. It was a fun project to work on, but I eventually had to give up on this concept as it was driving me crazy trying to get my record to flow and feel right (as its own thing) while still conforming conceptually to the White Album.

Frances: A few of my favorite songs from the new one are “Mr. Fly,” “As Lost as You Are,” and “Medic.” Can you talk about the writing process or concepts behind these songs?

Mike: “Mr. Fly”: I clearly remember writing that lyric as I was just jotting down what was going on around me at the time. There were more verses originally. Later on I just distilled it down a little to make a song. One of my faves. “As Lost As You Are” was something I had written a few years earlier. The lyric is just a reflection of how much static there is out there. The music just happened. It’s a pretty simple three-chord rocker. Fun to play live. “Medic” was just a studio experiment that got out of hand but still works if you like that noisy hypnotic kind of thing. I do.

Frances: The new two-CD set, not yet titled, reflects your continued growth as a writer and producer, and represents a mature homage to influences ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan, the Byrds to Brian Eno, Tom Petty to Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash to JJ Cale. How are you planning to market the work and how can your community of fans become involved?

Mike: I had a blast making the new record over the last four years. I’m very happy with it and do want to give it a chance to be heard. So… I’m going to try find a label that is into releasing it. I’m just starting to get my “sales pitch” together for it. I just want to perform as much as I can and tour as much as is possible. That will likely mean that I have to do it as a solo act much of the time just to make it somewhat sustainable. I’ll take the band as much as I can but that requires much more coordination and expense. I would love to just go out with a couple guitars and do a set somewhere every night. House concerts interest me; there has been a growing scene for that. So, I’d love to do a bunch of those plus I’d obviously take gigs at established venues. It would be nice to get the chance to open for a larger act on one of their tours. Perhaps I could supplement their band or do merchandise for them. I’d also love to be able to do some field recording for other artists while out on tour. Basically, my marketing plan is to just go out there and do the things I do well as much as I can.

Learn more about Mike.

The Patrick McNeese interview, unabridged

23 Aug

A seminal figure in downtown Lexington’s art scene, Patrick McNeese is an accomplished fine artist, musician and film maker who has found a way to make his art into a business. He’s perhaps best known for his stylized series of oil paintings and two-dimensional mixed-media on paper portraying colorful pensive figures in a blend of post-modernist and Cubist style with nods to Chagall and Picasso. He describes his brand of original introspective music as “Appalachian Jazz,” in which he sings and plays edgy piano and rhythm guitar, usually complemented by others playing mandolin, fiddle and various percussion instruments. He’s recorded and produced three albums, “The Singing Bridge” 1989; “Me, Mywolf and I” 1993; and “Any Day Now” 2005, has a live album in the works, and has also extended his songwriting talents to composing sound tracks. In his award-winning career as a film maker, McNeese has not only art directed commercials, but produced, directed and edited three regional documentaries: Hemplands; Of Myth and Muse: Stephen Foster and My Old Kentucky Home; and Searching for Wolf Boy: The Art of Jimmy Gordon. He was also production designer and art director for the local feature film 100 Proof and a location scout for Simpatico, starring Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone. This interview was originally published in a much shorter form in Business Lexington.

Frances: What choices have you made in order to live your life in such a way that you were able to make a living from your art?

Patrick: If you are trying to be independent and not take some prescribed corporate route, you have to do a lot of different things. From early on, I never thought about a single pathway. You keep yourself open to many choices within the area where your talent lies. As an artist, not only do you wear a lot of hats, you have to have about three different heads under those multiple hats. I have six or seven micro jobs. They are all very important; some of them bring me more income, and some of them bring me more satisfaction.

To have control, you are willing to trade a lot of other things. I live in the top of a building down here [in downtown Lexington], I’ve never owned a home; I’ve never really aspired to own a home. My wife Claudia is a painter and we never went after those kinds of things, thinking that freedom and flexibility and the ability to be creative and take those paths that present themselves was very important in the way to design a life.

Frances: What do you see as the relationship between art and the current state of our economy in this country?

Patrick: If you are going to be in the art or music business, you have to be an innovator; on some level, you have to embrace innovation. I’m going to take what I’ve been given, and I’m going to change it. That could be an act of arrogance, that could be an act of courage, however you want to frame it. I heard a great quote the other day: “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” This was FDR and he was talking about the depression, but that was his very short, and I thought very eloquent and true recipe for moving ahead and that’s true in the arts, true in trying to change the environment, trying to improve our business practices, the way we treat each other – everything.

At this moment, it seems like we are at this flash point where there is going to be an awakening – because the Styrofoam container bullshit is done, and the giant car and the burning up of limited fossil fuels. It’s the big slowdown. We have to change the way we do things, or we won’t be able to move ahead, we won’t be able to innovate.

As an artist, you are not working directly with the environment, you’re not working directly with the people that actually have their hands on the levers of power and can actually make those changes, but you are certainly like the pioneer kind of guy who at least, through his art, figures out a philosophical way to live that then translates into ways that improve modern life. Scaling back and simplicity, which sounds really painful to a lot of people, is a shared philosophy between the arts and the environmental and sustainability movement. How can we do more with less, how can we save our resources, how can we recycle everything we use? We can’t be throwing things away and keep living the materialist, consumerist life that our parents did.

Some artists go for the more practical, straightforward connection in terms of using recycled materials in their work, but my art comes from a more self-oriented narrative. Rather than literally demonstrating the connection between creativity and sustainability through my work, what I do and the way I do it, and what I have to do in order to achieve what I do means that I employ a lot of those same sustainable tenets, and I had to figure that out on my own by reading good books and having experience.

We are all like a bunch of cows standing out in a field, bored and frightened, mindlessly consuming, and anybody who can get their head up out of that modern day trap and do something different is really a breath of fresh air.

Frances: Do you consider Lexington an artist-friendly town? Put another way, is it easy or difficult to make a living as an artist in Lexington compared to other places?

Patrick: I would argue that the more involved, engaged, creative and open people are the people that like art. They want to dream a little bit. They want some sort of magic or almost religious experience that art provides. There is a mystery about art. If you make it, you’re very cognizant of that.

But struggle is implicit in that choice of being an artist. I wrote a song called “And I Will Struggle.” I will struggle through the days and nights; I will struggle all my life. It’s like a little prayer. If you sign up for this life, struggling is inherent. When art is derivative and only emulates something else, that’s people refusing to struggle.

In Lexington, there’s not a gallery system. You come in and, there are a few galleries, but it’s not New York City, it’s not San Francisco, it’s not Chicago – even Asheville has a better gallery system. The problem is a lack of audience, and in the visual arts sense it’s a lack of purchasing audience. So the visual artist is very dependent on a gallery that can market their work. For example, Marjorie Guyon is really the template of successful Lexington artist because she works here, but she’s been able to market herself elsewhere. She’s found galleries that support her work and her vision, and she’s done well.

The economy could improve… and actually the ‘90s was better than the present time; I was selling more work then. It’s like we have to lift up the level of the whole lake, and then that particular boat will rise.

Frances: How do you strike the necessary balance between immersion in your work, and marketing it?

Patrick: It’s a rare artist that can do both of those things well [at once] because a very different portion of the soul is needed [for each]. The artist that is a really good marketer I sort of don’t trust as an artist – and vice versa. I’ve tried to overlap it; I turn certain switches off per a period of time. I haven’t made a painting for a number of years; right now currently, I’m mostly a musician. But through the 90s I painted hundreds of paintings. I developed and finalized the style most people know me by and I still have a big backlog of original work that I haven’t sold; I was so prolific.

The best thing about marketing in the last few years is Facebook. You hit people like raindrops, again and again, and you have to be consistent. “The Face” is perfect for a visual person. Luckily for me, my paintings work in a little thumbnail: at first viewing you can look at those little faces and it works. People are driving by all this [marketing] at a high rate of speed; they’re scrolling through and it’s usually a visual thing that catches them. For the visual artist, Facebook is great because the visual hooks them. And then you can upload your music or films. It’s a great tool for the small producer/creator who wants to bring 40 people to a show or sell a painting. It’s the hygienic of marketing: you are doing something every day to market yourself, like flossing your teeth. I’ve sold more paintings in a year and a half on Facebook than in the five years prior, so it’s visceral. The computer is a great tool to build community, and art can ride on that.

Frances: Over the years, you’ve been playing more and more live music in Lexington; in fact, that’s how we first met when I saw you play at Shakespeare in the Park in the mid ‘90s. How do you get your gigs, and how do you feel music as an art form contributes to social development in Lexington?

Patrick: I shifted [from painting] to live music performance five or six years ago. I like it because it takes a lot of physical energy to perform and I like the community and the collaboration of it. And there are all these other non-artistic considerations that inform that decision: You realize you need a community, and ask yourself what kind of artistic work best builds community. And music has that quality.

In Lexington, I know all the players. I’ve been here so long; I have the rolodex. There are people who hire me for private parties. I played at Alfalfa’s every Friday night for ten years. One of the problems with being an innovator is, people want to buy a known product. And they’ll ask, “What do you do? Is it like this?” And my response is, “Well no, it’s not like that.” Also, the cultural scene has been dictated by college students – that’s been a limiting factor. Natasha’s is a wonderful example of trying to do it right from the artist’s point of view. It’s a good marketing gig because it’s high profile; they do a great job of marketing. The Lexington Area Musical Alliance (LAMA) is a great new thing that’s going on that goes right to what we are talking about; it was created expressly to support local music production and performance.

Music right now because of its communal sense is a real important thing. People know how music makes them feel and they know that that’s important. These guys are in front of you live, making this thing happen, and you see the mistakes, you appreciate the humanness of what is going on, with its triumph and its potential disaster. It really is how church functions. We come together and we acknowledge certain things and reaffirm them amongst ourselves and these guys on the stage are going to create something under the threat of failure. That’s a magical moment and that’s truly music making. [My] next album is going to be live. That live feeling is real important.

Last night I saw Big Maracas playing right down the street from me here. A guy from South America, Enrique, came up here and taught all these guys all these Latin rhythms and it’s like you’re in Havana, and it raises my blood! That’s my favorite band because I’m just instantly made happy. Everybody was just gyrating: young people, old people, people who had some money and people who looked like they didn’t have money – and everybody was in communion.

Frances: How has Lexington’s relationship to art matured since you started out, and what draws you to – and keeps you in – this city?

Patrick: When I started out downtown Lexington in the ‘80s, it was me and the lawyers – there were like three other artists. Now everybody is wanting to be an artist and talk about art and even a business magazine wants to talk about art because they see that, in a society that has a lot of problems, part of what we are doing is dying off so something else can grow, and art is the laboratory for that. There are those individuals that are bold and persistent and experiment. I responded to a certain reality around here that has its limits and I just bought into and accepted those limits and don’t always think about how they can change.

Central Kentucky’s my home and that is a powerful elixir to sip – and you want to make it work. I’m glad I stayed here, because there was a period where I left, and I always came back like a magnet. I’ve met a lot of good people. The woman I’ve spent the last 25 years with, Claudia Hatfield, an oil painter and chef, I met at the University of Kentucky in art school, so that’s a great benefit. I’ve had this primary relationship with somebody that is like me – that is an artist – and we sit at the breakfast table and we talk about what we’re confronting. They’re witnessing what you are going through and you’re witnessing what they’re going through. The value of that kindred spirit can’t be overstated as far as survivability goes.

To see more of Pat’s work and listen to his songs, become a friend on Facebook.

What’s cooking… in MY Kitchen?

21 Aug

While summer is still sizzling, I want to share with you some of my latest local recipes. But wait – before your mouth starts watering – it’s not what you think!

Although I totally appreciate food as an art form – and absolutely admire my friends who try their culinary skill at exotic dishes, artisanal recipes and ethnic cuisine – I might as well just come out and say it (for those of you who don’t already know): I don’t like to cook.

I basically just want to write.

MY kitchen is made up of words.

But food and words are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of my favorite recent creations was written from an interview I did with local Kentucky chef and restaurant owner, Ouita Michel. I could relate to her comment, “For me as a chef, using locally produced foods gives everything that we are doing a sense of authenticity. At each of our establishments, we are expressing what Kentucky is today through the use of Kentucky artists and Kentucky farm goods and preserving old Kentucky locations.” In the travel industry, this is what we call “sense of place,” and it is critical to the authenticity of tourism product.

I wrote the piece for Business Lexington, the Kentucky Bluegrass region’s local business journal. Back in May, Editor-in-chief Tom Martin asked me to do some coverage of travel industry trends and sustainability issues, as well as profiles of interesting local figures as appropriate to fit each weekly issue’s theme. Here are some more of my articles from the past four months:

Aug. 19, 2011 interview with fine artist, musician and film maker Patrick McNeese

July 22, 2011 interview with Lexmark’s sustainability director John Gagel

July 8, 2011 overview of sustainable restaurant scene in Lexington

July 8, 2011 Lexington residents share favorite places to eat

June 24, 2011 overview of tourism trends today and tomorrow

June 24, 2011 overview of Lexington’s hospitality industry

May 27, 2011 tourism as an economic factor affecting sustainability

May 27, 2011 three ways businesses can be more sustainable

And so, while I may not love to cook, when it comes to mixing up ideas, flavoring them with just the right words, and baking it all into a delightfully tasty creation, I’m as talented as any chef. A blank Word document is to me what a clean kitchen must be to a culinary artist, a tabula rasa ready to become the palette for the next tantalizing masterpiece.

How can tourism be responsible? Let’s ask Ged.

23 Mar


I expend a great deal of energy supporting and promoting various forms of responsible travel, including types of tourism known as “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism.” And so I often encounter the legitimate question: How can tourism be sustainable at all? Doesn’t it, by its very nature, contribute to the planet’s demise? You bring hoards of people into pristine natural areas, altering indigenous cultures, running roughshod over endangered species’ habitats, and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere with all the flights and other nasty forms of transportation.

Touché. True, if we all wanted to do the most sustainable thing possible, we’d each stay put, on our own plot of land, grow our own food, create our own homes, draw on natural resources for energy and building materials, manufacture our own supplies, and NOT travel, or at least not go very far from our respective communities. However, few of us in this day and age have the skills to go into the wild and live off the grid – much less the disposition to stay in one place. Whether international or regional, travel is how we expand our horizons, how we learn about the world around us. And, as long as we can, as an enterprising species, we are going to do it.

So, then, given human nature, the more practical question becomes: How can those who offer travel experiences ensure they improve the lives of the local people and the ecosystems their trips affect? Fortunately, there are many answers to this question. One of them is to build into the price of the tour funding that will go directly to conservation partners and programs that help the animals and the local people on the ground in the places visited. That is the approach taken by Ged Caddick, who runs Terra Incognita Ecotours. What follows is an interview I did with Ged last month for my Sustainable Travel International column, The STI Inner View.

Nominated for Best Tour Operator in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award, Terra Incognita Ecotours is based in Tampa, Florida, and operates tours to Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania. Gerard “Ged” Caddick founded Terra Incognita Ecotours in 2004 after more than fifteen years of working in expedition travel. Ged worked for Lindblad Expeditions as an expedition leader from 1992 to 2004, and for International Expeditions while living in Belize in the 1980s. He has led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History as well as many College Alumni groups, the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institution. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool, and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. As one can imagine, I had a hard time getting Ged to sit still for this interview as he’s usually on at least three continents each month. We spent a little time together recently when he had just returned from at trip to India setting the foundation for yet another ecotour.

Frances: Where were you in India and what did you see?

Ged: We were in Banhavgarh and Corbett National Parks and had some incredible wildlife experiences. We saw tigers and Asian Elephants on multiple outings, but also the monkeys called Common Langurs, Plum-headed Parakeets, Jungle Cat, Wild Boar, lots of Spotted Deer, Brown Fish Owls, eagles and much more. It was very, very cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. We will be offering India in early 2012, probably in February.

Frances: In a nutshell, what is the philosophy behind Terra Incognita Ecotours?

Ged: We are committed to making a difference to our guests and to the places we visit. Our commitment is to provide travelers with opportunities to participate in ecotours that explore the world with a sense of discovery and wonder, and to preserve our environment for future generations. We draw on our legacy of adventure, experience and knowledge to do this. And as we do so, we strive to create ecotours that are as enriching and memorable as they are comfortable and fun.

Frances: How did you decide upon the name Terra Incognita?

Ged: Terra Incognita was chosen as this was the term you saw on the edge of the maps drawn by early explorers to show that the edges of the map were undiscovered, uncharted or unknown land. I love the romance and idea of exploration this invokes.

Frances: How did the experiences and dreams of your formative years foster your leadership skills and shape your interest in travel and animal conservation?

Ged: I grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Liverpool, the oldest of ten children! We had dogs chickens, geese, pigs and various other animals as pets, as well as horses for riding when I was a young teenager. Always being around animals and loving them, I dreamed of being a game park warden in East Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. I even applied for such jobs there as I finished University. I traveled a lot within the UK, to the Lake District every summer with my family and as a teenager all over England, Scotland and Wales, plus a couple of trips to France.

Frances: What was the event that first interested you in environmental conservation?

Ged: During my university days in Liverpool I spent vacations working as a volunteer for the “British Trust for Conservation Volunteers,” doing trail maintenance, cleaning old footpaths, canals and other such tasks.

Frances: Did you have a mentor who directly inspired you in terms of your ultimate career choice in working to protect animals?

Ged: My first job was a zoo-keeper at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, a zoo dedicated to captive breeding and conservation of endangered species. My mentor there was Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo.

Frances: How did you first get the inkling you wanted to work in travel or tourism?

Ged: In the mid 1980s, when living in Belize and working at the Belize Zoo, I started doing guiding for International Expeditions as they started tours to Belize. They needed local people who knew the wildlife and culture of Belize. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed sharing my love of conservation and wildlife by showing people natural spaces and species in-the-wild.

Frances: What were the challenges of living in Belize long-term and what did you love about it?

Ged: The biggest challenge to living and working in Belize was the isolation and the fact that simple tasks presented many more logistical challenges; communication, building, even getting supplies takes much more effort there. What I loved was that you could make a difference, that my work at the zoo was helping to change people’s perceptions of wildlife and nature in the country of Belize. You become a big fish in a small pond when working in a small country like Belize; when I was there, the population of the entire country was less than 200,000 people.

Frances: What were the things you most admired about Lindblad Expeditions? What elements of the job did you find challenging? Were there aspects of the travel experience you wanted to emulate when you started your own travel company?

Ged: My time at Lindblad was very enjoyable, and particularly important was the commitment to excellence. Dealing with “difficult” people was always the main challenge! I knew when I started my company it was going to be important that we made a positive impact on the places we visited, that we made a difference, that our presence was a force for good, for improved conservation efforts.

Frances: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards of being a tour operator for you?

Ged: Attracting customers through marketing has been my biggest challenge – and I am still learning. The most rewarding facet of the work is helping the conservation organizations and other partners we work with in each destination.

Frances: Empowering local people is a huge component of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Give an example of seeing local people become empowered as a direct result of your tours.

Ged: On our Rwanda trip last September, many of the group were so moved by their experience they asked what they can do to help the kids we met around the Virunga Lodge where we stayed. Most of these children attend primary or elementary school as that is required by the government. But high school is elective and costs money, so many bright children do not continue their education as they simply cannot afford to. I have been sponsoring three children through high school, covering their fees and uniform costs etc. Well, many in the group wanted to do the same; they asked about each sponsoring a specific child. So on the next trip in December, I personally took over some funds gathered by these clients to sponsor about eight kids through a year of high school. And we’ll continue to do this sort of thing on a yearly basis.

Frances: Can you describe an “aha!” or “wow!” moment where your clients really “got it” in terms of ecotourism?

Ged: Every single time we take people to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, people experience an “Aha!” moment, they realize their presence is helping to save the Gorillas. Every single trip, someone is reduced to tears by the moment. I have had similar experiences when we see Pandas in the wild in China.

Frances: And I understand you got to meet someone very special last summer while on a tour to Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Can you tell us about that as a closing anecdote?

Ged: We were so fortunate last July to be in Gombe simultaneous to Jane Goodall being in Gombe, simultaneous to the 50th Anniversary of Jane’s pioneering work in Gombe and simultaneous to the visit of Lara Logan and the 60 Minutes film crew as they interviewed Jane and filmed the Chimps. Indeed several times we found ourselves being filmed by the 60 Minutes crew on the trails as we met Jane, and again as we arrived outside Jane’s house on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we actually joined Jane for sunset cocktails! So we sat glued to the TV one Sunday night in the fall for the airing of 60 Minutes to see if we made the episode! We did not make the final cut, as not surprisingly the focus was on Jane, her research and the Chimps, not on our small tour party that overlapped so fortuitously with this filming! But we are in a behind-the-scenes clip that you can see at this link (the Jane Goodall segment begins at about the 8:15 mark).

To learn more about Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours, please visit the company’s web site and follow them on Facebook.

Cynthia Cusick, artist interview

9 Dec

My friend Cynthia Cusick – a native New Yorker turned Eastern Kentucky farm girl – graduated last year from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor of fine arts degree. I remember visiting Cindi in her studio in late March of that year when she was preparing for her senior show. I stood amazed at the incredibly personal expression she had accomplished through metal and glaze stoneware sculptures. Looking at the scope of the work, I was reduced to tears – and then so was she. We shared one of those moments between friends where no words are really necessary, and then we proceeded to unload some of the then current hardships in both of our lives, while all around us an incredible collection of psychologically rich shapes and figures fresh from the kiln glistened and shone like the tears drying on our cheeks. Since then, Cindi, who turns 48 next week, has created a body of work that is only just beginning to be known and make an impression in the art world. I interviewed her over coffee yesterday about her life and work.

Cindi’s web site, where you can see all of her current work, is here.

Frances: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Cindi: Lots of things. I used to have one of those Pocket Books for each grade from Kindergarten to High School where you filled in your school name, the teacher’s name, your friend’s names, your likes and dislikes, attached a picture and each grade had a pocket to keep all those stellar report cards. They had a check box section at the bottom of each page to check what you wanted to be when you grew up. It was segregated by gender. I never liked the options for the girls so I felt I had to check “nurse” or “teacher” until I started checking “other” from age 7 on up. Some of my choices were “Archeologist” and “Horse Owner.”

Frances: What was your family’s attitude toward creativity?

Cindi: Actually, my family was very creative, especially Mom, but more towards the performing, song and dance, plays-on-stage type thing. They did a lot of parties with their friends and at church that had themes so they were always getting dressed in costumes and Mom was usually the one to draw up the invitations and posters. Mom has a lot of artistic talent that she never fully realized, I don’t think. I know she sent away for a “Commercial Artist’s Course” that gave instructions in this big printed book, chapter-by-chapter, about how to draw advertisements. Think Coca-cola ads from the 1950s. I still have the book. Mom and Dad grew up in the ‘40s so there was a “safe zone,” a very conservative type of creativity. Not the avant-garde type of stuff, at all.

Frances: What were your first creations as a youngster?

Cindi: Ha! My brother, Larry, and I once made an entire town out of construction paper on the window sill of our room when it rained during our entire school break. We also created our own newspaper. We both did a lot of drawing. God, I drew constantly. I was horse crazy from an early age so I was always drawing horses. My brother, Larry, is a year younger than me so we grew up like twins from a young age until about 13, 14. I do remember when we would play outside behind the apartments on Garth Road in the woods; I would dig in the dirt looking for clay. I imagined I was on some Indian trail and would try to find clay to make pots. Of course, it was mostly regular dirt, not necessarily clay but I did like playing in the mud even then.

Frances: How do you feel your family shaped your attitudes towards feminism and gender issues?

Cindi: Wow. Typical Baby Boomer family. Dad was a WWII vet, Mom was the wife and home-maker. Older siblings born in the 50s and then a gap of 8 years between my older brother, Jimmy, and me, born in 1962 so I was in an odd place. By the time I was finishing elementary school and entering puberty, it was 1972 and Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan and the like were in full swing. Women were burning bras, feminists and feminism were on the news, Ms. Magazine was launched and the options for girls was opening up. Although Mom and Dad were what I would call very conservative and traditional in gender roles, they were also less demanding on my brother and I since we were like a second family with eight years between me and Jimmy, so there was less concern that I was playing with GI Joe’s along with Barbies. They were less uptight raising Larry and me, I think. I grew up with an attitude that whatever I wanted to achieve, I could do it although, having said that, there were still gender specific expectations at home, like I should know how to cook and I should have a natural inclination to be a mother. Which I didn’t have.

Frances: When you lived in NYC, were you conscious of the artistic community? Did you realize that you were living in a place where art was a lot of more accessible and integrated into the social structure than in many other places?

Cindi: You can’t be from the NYC area and NOT be conscious of the artistic community. That’s like asking someone from Denver, Colorado if they were conscious of the mountains. NYC=ART, end of story. I suspect the same can be said of Paris, London, Berlin and other big, culturally  important cities. In a way, I think the intensity of the artistic climate, the fact that it is part of the fabric of NYC made it incredibly intimidating to me. I had dreams, as I grew up, drawing horses and then people and things, of being an artist but I was too scared to do it because look what I had to compete with? The rest of the world. I don’t think I was ever really aware how integrated art is in NYC, and how diverse and forward-thinking art is, not fully, until I left NYC to come to Central Kentucky.

Frances: What type of art or which artists do you remember first being affected by?

Cindi: Modern art. Picasso. Mondrian. Bauhaus architecture. the Abstract Expressionists, Pop Culture. Andy Warhol. I hated all of it at first, because I think I was expected to hate it coming from a nice conservative, Catholic family. But at the same time, our family was a little bit weird so I was really, really drawn to the difference from traditional, “safe” art all the same. What really drew me in and kept me going back was the subversiveness of it all. I was ultimately attracted to the power those kinds of art had in making people think.

Frances: You worked as a graphic artist for many years. How did you eventually decide you needed to move your creativity out of that realm and into a new direction?

Cindi: Graphic design was a cop-out for me. It was a “safe,” productive, respectful way for me to “be creative,” i.e. I could make a living at it earning a steady paycheck and appear to have some creative input into the things I was making. The reality was that I was always doing the bidding of the client and creativity, as far as I defined it, was an illusion. It was immensely frustrating. “Stifling” is the word I’d use. Plus so much of graphic design is promotion and product-oriented which left a bad taste in this old punk rocker’s mouth. When you see the ins and outs of media manipulation, it takes the joy out of life. How did I decide? One word: divorce. Nothing like a divorce to make you sit down and say, “Right. What the hell am I doing and why? Time for a change!”

Frances: Moving from the sophistication of New York City to live in rural, and intensely traditional, Irvine, Kentucky, has been a challenge that you have both relished and risen to. How have you learned from the culture around you and how do you feel it has shaped your artistic philosophy?

Cindi: I think I’ve always felt I would have to leave the environment of NYC to fully express myself. I’ve always yearned for the outdoors, the woods, the dirt, the rivers, the oceans, the wild animals and weird plants, trails, hiking, National Parks – I love National Parks. New York doesn’t have a lot of that. Because of that, I had a deep desire to go back to those profound, visceral relationships with nature that I experienced in my childhood in the woods behind the apartments. Being able to come out here to Estill County and own my own acreage allows me to indulge that part of me whenever I need inspiration. Estill County is traditional in one sense, but this part of Kentucky also has some quirkiness and eccentricity that I feel comfortable with, almost like walking around Thompson Square in the East Village – but you have to drive longer distances and people have funny accents. To me. As for artistic philosophy, I think I get to be one of the eccentrics. I enjoy my role as a weirdo New Yorker, an outsider. You get a much better view, in my opinion.

Frances: You have explained your work as referencing organic objects as a metaphor for life experiences. Please explain this statement.

Cindi: I’m really interested in nature, in general. My niece, Allison, is a biologist, and I think that is the coolest thing. I’d love to do some of the things that she does. She and I observe nature. She records it differently than I do but we’re getting at the same thing. We’re both trying, I think, to make a bridge between the organic world all around us and ourselves. Particularly now, in this day and age of technology, much like the Industrial revolution, I suspect we humans have this tendency to disassociate from the rest of the natural world because we’ve conned ourselves into thinking we can live without it and in spite of it, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are nothing but an elaborate container for some sophisticated DNA whose mission is to reproduce itself with as much variety as possible to ensure biological success. We are organic. Driving a hybrid car, watching a flat panel TV, having 1,000 “friends” on Facebook is us deluding ourselves that we are removed from nature. Or above it. So I like to use seeds and other organic references as a reminder of our vulnerabilities. We can crap on the planet and ignore climate change, but we’re only hurting ourselves in the end.

Frances: What role does observation play in creativity and in producing art?

Cindi: Art is about observation. In order to produce art as opposed to replicate art, you have to really be aware and observe without judgment, initially. Then, when you take in the information around you, you can analyze and say something about what you see. Without observation, it’s all just paint-by-numbers.

Frances: Your work often centers around feminist themes and women’s issues. What is your stance on feminism and do you consider yourself a feminist?

Cindi: All women in Western culture, as far as I’m concerned, are feminists, even if they chose to adhere to more traditional roles. The very fact that you can have a choice about that means you support the feminist point of view, whether you realize it or not. Unless you want to give up the right to vote, you’re a feminist. Going back to school as an older woman, and a non-traditional student, I was always struck by these teens and 20-somethings that swore off anything feminist just because they were so far from the roots of the movement. I would just politely and directly contradict them when they would say, “Oh, I’m not a feminist!” “Bullshit,” I would say, “You’re a student here, right?” They missed the irony in their enrollment.

Frances: Why did you gravitate toward clay as a medium and why do you love working with it?

Cindi: I blame Joe Molinaro, my ceramics professor at Eastern Kentucky University. I was simply trying to get my BA in Metalsmithing and had to take a Ceramics I class. He told me I needed to be a ceramics major. I felt threatened so I caved. Okay, I’m kidding, but he did encourage me to become a ceramics major. There’s something basic, fundamental and Zen-like about working with, well, dirt. How much more basic can you get? Maybe air, but it doesn’t hold a form the way clay does. I think Joe recognized that I had a connection to the process of working in clay as well as a sense of proportion and design. He saw my relationship with the material, I think. I work in other material besides clay, mind you, but his guidance and direction helped me find my artistic voice that had been silent for a long time. Okay, maybe not silent, but my voice prior to school was directionless and lacked confidence.

Frances: Some of your work involves the use of metals, but usually juxtaposed with other materials. What does metal represent or signify for you?

Cindi: Oh, I love metal. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus from metal and I’m itching to get back in to it. I really think I have some quality metal pieces inside me that have yet to be expressed. I can sense ideas percolating but I think they’re in the future a bit. I love the strength of metal as a medium and the flexibility, if that makes sense. Metal can be illusory. It can be thick and clunky, filigree and delicate, shiny or dull, smooth and polished or textured, ominous and dark or enameled and colorful. You can set stones in it, wrap it around objects, pierce it with things, use it to pierce things, even flesh. It brings different possibilities to the table than other media. I just saw some enameled vessels that had me drooling the other day. Talk about sexual! Mmmmmm….

Frances: Themes you have explored include very personal and autobiographical experiences related to parental alienation. Talk about how that came about and how it is evolving in your work.

Cindi: My first theme or thing that I felt compelled to say in artistic form was in metal combined with gourds, organic objects that represented the human form. I was going through an intense, emotionally exhausting and draining custody issue with my husband (concerning his ex-wife) during the years I was getting my BFA from EKU. His son, who is now, seventeen, was seven and a half when I met him. He is an only child. The effect of being in the middle of two adults who were angry at each other was painfully obvious. I was appalled at the behavioral changes we saw in him as he tried to cope. Watching a child suffer when one parent willfully manipulated his natural feelings towards both parents in order to gain a legal advantage was something I never contemplated being involved with in my lifetime. Basically, parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse, as it asks the child to give up their natural love for a parent in order to make another parent happy. It’s about exploitation of power relationships of parent and child, and development of co-dependency. Eventually, you hope, depending on the kid, that they figure out what’s going on, and a lot of kids do, but it’s at the cost of a wound that can take a lifetime to heal. In our case, my stepson is on a path of awareness, now, so that’s good for him. I’m sure I’ll find some way of expressing this “turning of a corner.” Needs time to ferment.

Frances: You have said to me before that the only constant in life is change. I have noted how you, like many artists, are able to find relative calm amid a myriad of chaotic events and situations. Talk a little bit about your ideas surrounding chaos, change and constancy.

Cindi: Well, it is true that the only constant is change, that’s what this universe does and yet when you step back and observe, all that change makes a whole picture at the same time it’s changing. In fact, some times we can see not change, itself, but the still moments and effects of time and change, and then we sense the process it took to get from one place to the next. I always like to say we’re all in a race for the pine box or however you choose your finale. In the mean time, as we race, we hit mile posts and then reflect on them afterwards. I think it’s been helpful to me to embrace change instead of fighting it. It certainly makes things a lot more enjoyable and fun. When I feel a chaotic situation, if I take the time to step back from the chaos, I can find some beauty and pattern in the illusion of randomness. It reminds me of those fractal patterns, in each part of the fractal if seems there is no pattern or direction to the graph, but when you keep the algorithm going and step back, this weird snowman-like pattern emerges. It’s a meta experience. Think of those videos where it starts in the middle of a busy, chaotic, ugly, urban street and then zooms out further and further until your view is of the planet and the swirling atmosphere. Just depends on your perspective.

Frances: An area of exploration in your work involving change is that of sexuality and the natural progression of a woman toward infertility in the form of menopause. How does your work explore this?

Cindi: I never wanted to have kids. We’re biologically programmed and built to procreate and recreate. I had all the desire to do the procreative act, but not the follow-up, which I never had to do. As a result, I’ve always had questions – either from within or more often foisted upon me from without – about defining myself as a female, as a woman. What does it mean to be woman if you do not fulfill the biological plan of bearing children? Even if I didn’t want children, just the fact that I was still technically able to have them somehow fulfilled that part of my identity as “woman.” So what happens when you go through menopause and now, you can no longer have children? What becomes of the female identity then? What about sexuality? The libido drops but there are ways around that and you can still have sex without the childbearing. But I already do that so what’s changing and will my perspective on my sexuality change much as a non-mother, as opposed to a woman who has been sexual and had children? I’m also really fascinated by issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s so fundamentally biological and yet we humans make things so complicated.

Editor’s note: Cindi has an entire series of work exploring menopause. You can see it here.

Frances: You have said that a recurring theme in your art is a trust in the intuitive. Please elaborate.

Cindi: A visiting artist to EKU once said to me, “If it comes from your hands, it’s good.” English wasn’t her first language so she may have wanted to be more elaborate, but the simplicity of what she did say had such a profound effect on my work. I went from simple gourd forms in clay to bending the form and finally, my carving exploded. I stopped planning what I was going to do and trying to get my hand work to match the expectations in my head. As a result, I was able to let go and just let my hands do their thing and then stop and look at what I had created. I began a dialogue with myself about what I was trying to say to me. I became my own best feedback. I let my intuition guide me and then tweaked and guided it to help express what I was trying to say. In effect, I let go of my artistic control freak that had been holding me back.

Frances: What is your relationship to spirituality and how does this play out, if at all, in your creative process?

Cindi: I’m an atheist from a good Catholic background! If I had to identify a spiritual philosophy that most resonated with me, it would most likely be Buddhism and Zen, although I’m not into all the ritual. But from what I know about Buddhists and Zen practitioners, they’re not so hung up on the ritual. I do have an aversion to religion and religious structures and dogma. I find all religions have some philosophy that is simply humans trying to understand their place in the universe and to a degree, they function like different languages saying the same basic message. Unfortunately, it’s the hierarchies and dogma that muck it all up, in my opinion. I’m not sure that spirituality plays out in my creative process, itself, as much as the creative process is my spirituality.

Frances: How do you define wisdom and do you think this differs for women and men?

Cindi: Wisdom! Ha! I know nothing. What is wisdom, anyway? I think wisdom comes, also, from keen observation and awareness. And some detachment from the emotional. In that sense, it probably does differ for women and men, but merely by the path it takes, I think. Ultimately, I think we’re all capable of attaining some wisdom at some point in our lives. Before we die.

Frances: How do you define balance and how do you achieve it?

Cindi: Balance, for me, is being able to come back to a place where I can begin again. It’s like yoga poses. For every pose, there is a countering pose to strengthen the whole. So if I’m very focused for a time, I need some relaxation and goof-off time to counter it. On the other hand, if all I’m doing is goofing off, I need some task, goal or chores to counter my idleness. Chop wood, carry water. When things get really out of sorts, I always try to remember to come back to the basics, food, shelter, water, chores. When in doubt, wash the dishes, sweep the floor. You can get a lot of thinking done without thinking then. And the other great thing for balance and a nice reality check are my animals. Nothing puts it all in place like my cat’s purr, my dog licking my hand or leaning on me for some head pats or the nuzzling of my horses, sinking my face into their coat and breathing in their smell.

Frances: What are your current goals with respect to your work in the next five years?

Cindi: I’m looking at the year 2010 as a year of transition for me, which makes 2011 Year One. So, we begin. In five years, I’d like this to be a comfortable process, the making, the creating, the showing, the thinking. I’d like to keep my ability to see the beautiful patterns in the chaos. I’d like to see my work evolve from media specific to more integration between clay, metal, organic and so on as it’s called for. Right now, my goals are getting the most exposure for my work as possible, as far across the region, country and globe as possible. And also to keep making work. I wouldn’t mind doing something unexpected and/or collaborative, either. All in good time. I’ve got a whole second half of my life to enjoy this.

You can follow Cynthia Cusick, artist, on Facebook, here.

Yoga retreat at New Years on an island in Nicaragua, anyone?

24 Nov

Nicaragua, the next big ecotourism destination

In recent years, as social stability and economic growth have come to Central America, travelers with a taste for the cutting edge are discovering that Nicaragua is one of the undiscovered treasures of the Western Hemisphere. Visitors to this country will find that tours, accommodations, food, activities and transportation are affordably priced. And perhaps an even more important distinction, locals are truly authentic and welcoming. The interactive traveler who likes to be the first to discover a new destination and actively engage with the locals, knowing that their visit to the country is giving back directly to the community, will love Nicaragua. And it is only a two- to three-hour flight from Miami (American), Atlanta (Delta) and Houston (Continental) into the capital city of Managua, and no visas are required.

Nicaragua’s newest eco-resort, Jicaro Island Ecolodge is managed by the award-winning Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and was created to capture the country’s true essence.

Set on a private island, the eco-luxury lodge opened in January 2010 and is located just a short boat ride from the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua’s top tourist town. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Matthew Falkiner, the lodge offers nine two-level and very private casitas, hand crafted using indigenous wood. There is a floating yoga platform (shown above), gorgeous lounge areas and pool. Meals are created using seasonal, local ingredients, and highlight Nicaraguan recipes and flavors. Jicaro Island offers spectacular views of the Mombacho Volcano across Lake Nicaragua and over 100 different species of birds have been sighted since opening.

Jicaro Island Ecolodge is also quickly gaining a reputation for its yoga and wellness retreats, of which four are scheduled for the very near future in partnership with Big World Small Planet. I recently had the opportunity to interview the leader for the first of these, Peter Sterios, the founder of Manduka, a company providing high-quality yoga mats and other accessories, who will be offering Gravity & Grace: Resistance As Your Inner Teacher December 29, 2010-January 4, 2011.

Interview with yoga instructor Peter Sterios

Peter lives and teaches in San Luis Obispo, CA. His classes reflect over three decades of study and practice in the US and India. A writer and former contributing editor for Yoga Journal, he has been featured in their yoga calendars, Beginners Column, Master Class Column and web site. He has taught at numerous yoga conferences, and continues to conduct workshops and teacher trainings throughout North and Central America, Asia, and Europe. He founded Manduka, a leading eco-yoga products company in 1997. His first yoga DVD “Gravity & Grace” was released in 2007 and recently honored by Yoga Journal’s Richard Rosen as “one of the top 15 yoga videos of all time.”

Frances: When you were young, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

Peter: A pilot.

Frances: What early interests, studies and career choices led you toward your current focus?

Peter: I ended up in architecture school because of an intense fascination with LEGOs from about the age of 4. I liked creating things, building things, and ultimately learning how structure works in buildings and then eventually in bodies as a yoga teacher. It was a roundabout journey though from architecture school to India to study yoga. Once yoga entered my life for real, I sought out teachers and places to study to understand the roots of the practice in an effort to simplify the instruction and make it more accessible to beginners. As a result, I’m now a yoga teacher, a writer, an architect, and a yoga product designer for Manduka which I founded in 1997.

Frances: What types of yoga instruction do you focus on most specifically?

Peter: Yoga for those with healing “opportunities” – people who have a health condition that requires their personal involvement to deal with it successfully.

Frances: What is your philosophy of yoga instruction, in a nutshell?

Peter: Get out of the way of the student’s own experience of the practice so they can uncover the “inner teacher” for themselves.

Frances: Explain your use of “resistance” as an “inner teacher.”

Peter: Resistance is a spot or place in the body that communicates to the mind that more attention is required there. Once you learn the language the body uses to send that message, your practice is just listening to what is needed at that spot.

Frances: What can guests expect from working with you in a luxury eco-retreat setting like Jicaro?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Do you like to work with people who are advanced in practice or new to yoga, or both?

Peter: I prefer to work with anyone with a desire to learn more about themselves, experienced or beginners. Frankly, there isn’t much difference between the two when it comes to learning about the power of the mind to create your own self healing.

Frances: Why are you excited about coming to Nicaragua for the New Year and this retreat adventure?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Ha, nice repetition! As a former contributing editor to Yoga Journal, have you always enjoyed writing and communication?

Peter: Yes, but I enjoy it more after the deadlines, when the articles are finished. The writing process for me is always a test, and I struggle with finding the minimum amount of words to get across what I want to say.

Frances: Well, I think you have succeeded in being both succinct and articulate. Thank you for your time!

Peter: Thanks for getting the word out for this retreat. Adrienne at Big World Small Planet has done an amazing thing creating the setting and the opportunity for all of us to have a little adventure this New Year’s. What better way is there to start 2011!

For detailed retreat information and registration, click here.

More Upcoming Retreats at Jicaro Island

January 8 – 14, 2011. Celebration of Nia & Wine with Mona Melms. Nia is an innovative workout integrating 9 movement forms based on dance arts, martial arts and healing arts, inspiring you to find tremendous joy in moving your body…barefoot…in the tropics!

January 29 – February 4, 2011. Real Wellness with Alycea Ungaro. This highly experiential week integrates a diversity of modalities and practices focusing on Alycea Ungaro’s Six Principles of Wellness while studying and enjoying Pilates, nutrition and the surrounding nature.

February 5-11, 2011. livWHOLE with Jennifer Galardi. Many of us have been operating on automatic; eat, work, gym, sleep, rinse, repeat. Jennifer guides each participant to take a look at wellness as a whole instead of the sum of its many parts.

Photos of Jicaro Island Ecolodge by Martin van Doorn, courtesy of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and StoryTravelers.

Hitesh Mehta and Authentic Ecolodges

15 Nov

Originally published earlier this month as a blog for Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and Lapa Rios Ecolodge, this recent interview with my friend Hitesh provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a unique travel professional who has written a compelling new book (which he refers to not as a “coffee table” book but as a “chai table” book), perfect for a holiday gift for anyone of any age who loves to read about the sustainable designs of exotic, eco-friendly lodgings and see state-of-the-art photography of amazing architectural spaces from all over the world! Order Authentic Ecolodges here.

Lapa Rios Ecolodge on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

 

“Nestled between the Pacific and one of Central America’s last remaining lowland rain forests, Lapa Rios is a true tropical paradise, graced with a dazzling array of biodiversity and dramatic scenery. A Minnesota couple, Karen and John Lewis, purchased the land in 1991 with the intention of proving a point: that a rain forest left standing is more profitable than one cut down… Committed to the idea that the land could be sustainable in both economic and ecologic terms, the Lewises constructed Lapa Rios around the rain forest (instead of the other way around)… It is one of only three properties in the whole of Costa Rica that has earned the highest possible ranking—five green leaves—under the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST).”

Thus begins the Lapa Rios section of Hitesh Mehta’s new book, ‘Authentic Ecolodges,’ published in September and launched worldwide earlier this month with an array of book signings and other events scheduled for the next few months on several continents. Hitesh Mehta, world-renowned landscape architect, environmental planner and architect, is one of the world’s leading authorities, practitioners, and researchers when it comes to ecolodge planning and design from both the architectural and landscape architectural perspectives. Through his design work with indigenous communities, Mehta has developed a portfolio of projects in Madagascar, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo, Turks and Caicos, Galapagos, Gabon, Fiji, Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Puerto Rico and the United States. His latest accomplishment, a one-of-a-kind experiential book, is the product of a 2 ½ year, 46-country, six-continent journey to document and illustrate what truly makes an ecolodge an ecolodge.

Frances: You are obviously overjoyed to have reached the milestone of having your amazingly beautiful and immensely educational book finally published by Harper Collins. Tell us more about your vision for the book and why you undertook such a vast and awe-inspiring project.

Hitesh: There are two main reasons I have done this book: to create both environmental and social awareness amongst people around the world and to celebrate the fantastic and altruistic work of people on the ground – such as craftspersons and lodge owners. As you know, I created my own rating system for ecolodges, which is explained in the book, and I sifted through 24,000 of my own professional photographs to pick just over 300 for this book. The feedback I am getting from people in-the-know is that it is the most all encompassing and holistic book ever created in the hospitality industry. In addition to stunning photos, there are professional illustrations, site plans and text that has substance for the lay person and industry professional alike. And it is printed on environmentally friendly FSC certified paper. Harper Collins is so excited that they want to submit the book for an award!

Frances: In addition to 35 other ecolodges, the book features Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality’s own Lapa Rios. Why do you consider Lapa Rios a model ecolodge?

Hitesh: Lapa Rios was one of few ecolodges in the world that met 10 out of 11 criteria. There are no ecolodges to date which have met ALL the criteria including the ones that I have personally worked on. Lapa Rios is especially strong in the three main criteria: that of protection of the surrounding ecosystem, helping benefit local communities and providing a rich interpretive experience. The one criterion that it does NOT meet is the one where “ecolodges bring in the local communities from day one of the planning and design process.” What gives it its special ambiance is that it has been led by visionaries (Karen and John) for the past 18 years and managed by the top small eco-chain (Cayuga) in the world. The other unique aspect of Lapa Rios that sets it apart from other ecolodges is its commitment to an exit strategy.

 

Habitation with ocean view at Lapa Rios Ecolodge

 

Frances: You have been involved in ecotourism for a very long time, since the beginning really. What new trends do you see influencing decision makers and stakeholders in ecolodge development?

Hitesh: One new direction is the idea of community owned and operated ecolodges. This concept started in Kenya but now has spread all over the world. These are projects which are entirely owned and operated by the local communities, such as Maasai and Native Americans in the Bolivian Amazon. A second interesting trend is that more and more ecotourism enterprises are adding “wellness centers” to their program of offerings. Yet another is the expansion into higher quality lodges. The upgrading of facilities is a response to the growing upper middle-class ‘experience seekers’ and ‘metro-spirituals’ market.

Frances: Why did you choose to study ecotourism and why do you love it?

Hitesh: Ecotourism is low-impact, practices non-violence principles and, as a sector of the tourism industry, has played a role in alleviating poverty in several rural parts of the world. It is the one sector of the tourism industry that has the greatest respect for both faunal and floral species as well as the welfare of the local people. Everything in the landscape is inter-connected and dependent on each other. The flowers are dependent on the butterflies and bees, the fruit dependent on the flowers getting pollinated, the birds and monkeys dependent on the fruit, the eagles and leopards dependent on the monkeys etc. Every single species is connected in this web of life. As humans, we are dependent on so many things—not only those that are man-made but those things that come from nature. If the natural web-link is destroyed by humans then our own existence will be in peril. In fact, it already is!

 

Frances: This touches on the concept you have talked to me about before, that of ecopsychology. Could you explain this for our readers?

Hitesh: In very simple terms, ecopsychology connects psychology and ecology. The basic idea of ecopsychology is that while the human mind is shaped by the modern social and technological world, it can be readily inspired and comforted by the wider natural world, because that is the arena in which it originally evolved. The political and practical implications are to show humans ways of healing alienation and to build a sane society and a sustainable culture. Mental health or unhealth cannot be understood simply in the narrow context of only intrapsychic phenomena or social relations. One also has to include the relationship of humans to other species and ecosystems. The destruction of ecosystems means that something in humans also dies. Humans, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, are part of this web and linked intrinsically with all species of nature. If they destroy nature, they will eventually destroy themselves.

Another aerial view of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

Frances: How does Lapa Rios fit into the ecopsychology concept?


Hitesh: Being located in one of Costa Rica’s most biodiverse areas comes with a list of environmental responsibilities—namely protecting the area and its inhabitants. Lapa Rios works with the Nature Conservancy and Cederena to ensure that protective measures are in place. On any given day, guests can watch an impressive range of animals—troops of howler monkeys, long-nosed coatimundis, three-toed sloths, and over 320 species of birds, like scarlet macaws and toucans frolicking in their natural habitat—all of which is visible from one of the lodge’s sixteen open-air bungalows. During construction, not one native tree was cut down to yield the five-acre compound. Lapa Rios is one of the Osa Peninsula’s largest employers: 90 percent of its sixty employees are from the local community. This is all in the book – and to learn the rest, you have to read it!

 

Frances: What can we as professionals in the hospitality and tourism industry do to help spread the word about ‘Authentic Ecolodges’?

Hitesh: Since no man can be an island, I look for your support to hand over this book as a gift to as many people as you feel will benefit. This will also make your holiday season stress-free as you won’t need to worry about what gifts to give! The more books you buy, the more we will all collectively be able to make a difference on this planet!

Order the book here.

Watch a short video about Authentic Ecolodges

Upcoming book signings with Hitesh:

Seattle:  Tuesday, November 16, 7 p.m. Third Place Ravenna Bookstore, 6504 20th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98115

Canada: Wednesday, November 17, 11:30 a.m. Tourism Victoria, 4th Floor, Bastion Square, Victoria, BC

Los Angeles: Friday, November 19, 7 p.m. Borders Westwood, 1360 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90024

Irving: Sunday November 21, 4 p.m. Element Hotel, 3550 W. IH 635, Irving, Texas 75063

South Africa: Saturday, Dec. 4, 3 p.m. Book Dealers of Gallo Manor, Lower Level, Morning Glen Shopping Center, Corner of Bowling Road and Kelvin Drive, Gallo Manor, phone (o11) 656.7026

Africa: Saturday, December 11, 4 p.m. Text Book Centre, Sarit Centre, Westlands, Nairobi, KENYA

More about Hitesh Mehta

A professional photographer and Hall of Fame cricket player from Kenya, Hitesh Mehta was named one of the “25 Most Powerful People in Adventure” by Men’s Journal. He is an adjunct professor at several universities in southern Florida, sits on the board of The International Ecotourism Society, is a member of the advisory board of BIOSFERA (Brazilian Environmental Society), is a founding member of The Ecotourism Society of Kenya, and has been the international advisor for the Japan Ecolodge Association. He has also been a judge and on-site inspector for the Tourism for Tomorrow awards, World Legacy Awards on Heritage Tourism and Ecotourism (National Geographic/Conservation International) and Ecotourism Awards (Conde Nast Traveler).

If you have enjoyed this interview, some of the topics touched on are discussed more in depth in another interview with Hitesh by Meg Pier, here.