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Seeking Truth Thru Art

Based out of Shannon, Mississippi, visual artist Sylvain Chamberlain creates art that is at once dramatic, expressive, and playful. As we gaze upon the artist’s portraits of individuals from all walks of life, we find ourselves in an almost hallucinatory state, our minds haunted by pseudo-recollections, like a déjà-vu from a previous relationship, a past life, or a parallel reality. We bear witness to the vivid illustrated memory of a person or a place that is at once so viscerally colorful and illuminated, and yet so plainly, so mundanely alive. We ask ourselves, “Can our own stories be as colorful and fascinating as Sylvain’s canvases make us believe? So full of light? So ripe with possibility?” Saturated with color, emotion, and texture, Sylvain’s work is like a storybook come to life, its pages unfurling like so many autumn leaves, redolent with the spice and fragrance of an impassioned, spirited life miraculously and meticulously preserved on an artist’s canvas.

Sylvain was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. He began dabbling in art when he was a young child: “According to my mom, my interest in art began when I was in my crib. In my earliest recollection, I remember that I wanted to avoid the terror of public speaking and doing oral reports in school. Instead, I chose to do optional assignments that would earn me “extra credit.” I did drawings of Shakespeare or of whoever was related to the assignment at hand. Also, I remember that when I was on my own at the library, I wanted to capture the beauty of birds in pencil drawings. This led the girls to admire me, which of course, changed my worldview. I suppose that speaks to my childhood experience with art, in that I found visual images to be much more effective at communicating my emotions and ideas than my ability to use spoken language. Images broke down barriers for me in more complex ways as I got older as well.”

Sylvain discovered the power of figurative art when he was twelve years old: “Figuration was the first imagery that I was attracted to. There are several moments that stand out in my childhood, when I thought I had found an important facility or skill, or when I had discovered something of importance or worth about myself. One of these moments was when I was twelve years old. I had just completed an especially hard physical week of football practice. I was hurt and bruised all over because I lacked the padding that my dad would not buy – because he felt that I had to toughen up.”

He continued: “I remember that I couldn’t sleep because of the aches and pains, so I turned on a nightlight and used a Number 2 pencil and a drawing pad to sketch a football player in different stances, complete with musculature. In some of my sketches, the football player wore the requisite padding. I discovered an odd sensation while drawing each inch of the body. It felt as though the pencil lead was following the contours of an actual human, as if I were tracing the flesh in my mind and then visually placing it onto the paper. It was a defining moment for me. I felt that I had become a vessel or a translator of sensations by way of a visual language, a mark-making language.”

As an artist, Sylvain is continuously inspired by the world around him, but has been profoundly influenced by his sister, who, prior to her death, had encouraged him to leave his job to become an artist: “I am inspired by many things, primarily by all of life itself in its precious abundance. I am constantly reminded of just how varied and mystifying human relationships remain. But, it was my younger sister who truly awakened me to my own path as an artist. Diane, who was four and a half years younger than me, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1984. On December 25, 1985, I flew to New York to donate bone marrow. On June 9, 1986, Diane died. She was 25 years old.”

“In our last conversation, my sister and I were alone together in her hospital room. She confessed that she had looked up to me her entire life. This was a shock to me at that time, as I did not see how I could be an inspiration to anyone. She then explained that she had devoted four years to the study of art at California State University at Fullerton, but that she could not come close to doing what I did. She said that she had witnessed me creating art, and that it seemed to require hardly any effort on my part. The funny thing was that it was the other way around for me. I was the one who idolized my sister. She had a facility with communication and relationships, which were not my forte at the time - and well, these are still things I struggle with today. She had graduated with a degree in advertising, and had found employment immediately afterwards. She worked at the DAY advertising agency in New York City and had landed General Mills as her client. She was responsible for the rebirth of the Kool-Aid man.”

“During that conversation, my sister recommended that I quit all my miserable jobs and get back to my art. So, after she died, I flew back to California, and went directly to Standard Brands Paint store. I purchased brushes, pencils, several canvases in various sizes, and a bunch of paint colors in quart jars – and I shut myself in my apartment for over three months. That was the beginning of my painting career. The first paintings were really powerful expressions of my inner turmoil. Not easy subject matter to look at, but the effortlessness that Diane spoke of - it was palpable, and now tangible!”

“When I emerged from my apartment after Diane’s passing, I decided that I needed to know more about this new life I was now embarking upon. So, I went to the local museum in Newport Beach to see an exhibit. It was a fascinating show, much like others I have seen since then, featuring the work of David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Charles Ray. Their work spoke a dialogue that seemed familiar to me, an image-making language I was just beginning to understand.”

“When I perused the museum bookstore afterwards, I happened upon a book about British figurative painter Francis Bacon. That book hit me like a ton of bricks. I remembered that when I was in the hospital after the bone marrow transplant, I had made drawings of myself. I had drawn myself in transparent boxes from which I could not escape despite my most ardent attempts. The transparent boxes had morphed through successive drawings into what eventually became my own coffin. Now, in that museum, I was suddenly confronted with Francis Bacon’s painting of a pontiff, screaming, in a transparent box. I could not stop the tears.”

“This experience gave me a sense of urgency and awakening. It was like what a nineteenth century archeologist would have felt after making a discovery in Egypt – a discovery that would validate his theory for more digging. My second epiphany came when I was at the Laguna Museum of Art in the late 1980’s where the figurative work of F. Scott Hess and Frank Dixon were featured in a show called “Everydayland.” As I entered a room, I peered at a large image of a loosely painted girl with a crown on her head, next to a scene of a tacky interior in which a show was playing on a television set. I said to my girlfriend, out of the side of my mouth, “Ha, Queen for a Day.””

“As we made our way across the room, pausing to take in other works, we took a closer look at the painting of the crowned, but homely looking girl. A small white plaque identified the name of the artist, Frank Dixon, together with the title – “Queen for a Day.” Oh my! As simple as it may sound, I felt the ground shake. And then, just last year, I had the opportunity to work with Frank Dixon to create a book. The book was called “2 be Frank,” and it featured his new work, as well as some of the e-mail dialogue that had taken place between us. As payment for my efforts, Frank gave me a painting. It was Queen for a Day. Amazing.”

*****

Sylvain hopes that his art will influence others personally and positively, and to encourage personal growth in himself and in others: “I have been on a serious path toward my own enlightenment for my entire life. Through painting I have found a way to express the deeply moving currents of my life - that would have been unknowable to me in any other form. Art has opened doors of study that have greatly expanded my worldview and understanding of the life and human experience. I took my Buddhist vows in 1988. One of the teachings of Buddhism is to study all things broadly, because at some point they are all fundamentally the same. This is a teaching that is far from trivial. I have set myself on a course with the arts, to create an inclusive world view, and to bring about positive and transformative personal awakening in people, one by one, through creative growth.”

For Sylvain, art resides in the transmission of language: “Although I take pride in the knowledge that I can paint anything, I prefer figurative and representational art. I believe art is about telling stories, and I like to have an implied narrative in my work. Sometimes that means a series of vignettes. At other times, it means simply hinting at a deeper or concealed story. I prefer a large scale to encompass the viewer into an idea or space. The only other medium I have found that can offer this psychological space is film or video. The reason I don’t pursue filmwork - other than financial reasons - is that the presentation of film is never a constant. It is never controlled. Film can be viewed on large screens and on small computer monitors, so the visual imagery does not translate well for me.”

Acrylic painting is Sylvain’s medium of choice: “I like painting to remain painting. By that, I mean that I have no desire to be so hyper real in representation as to challenge the camera’s mechanics or the emulsions of photographs or digital media. I appreciate the skill, but for me, the art is in the transmission of language from artist to canvas, and then from canvas to viewer. It is palpable through the system of mark making and is evidenced in the work itself. I am always thrilled when I can walk up to a canvas and watch as the imprint of the whole gives way, dissolving the composition into its component parts and eventually to the layers of the artist’s hand. This is what I try to achieve in transparent layering of hues, and I’m careful to allow areas where pencil drawings of the original layout are still visible beneath the layers.”

Sylvain believes that viewers must have confidence in their own ability to participate in the artistic experience: “I am truly fortunate that people generally bring their lives into full view when engaging with my work. By that I mean that they often ask questions about my early work, like “What were you thinking when you made this?” Which usually makes way for more interesting remarks or responses like, “I see this or that,” or “It makes me feel… ” or “Wow, those eyes are so powerful…” I think it is supremely important that viewers respect and honor their own experience with art as being equal to, and even superior to the artist’s relationship with the work itself.”

*****

Sylvain believes that it is his life’s work to support and to contribute to the art community: “I am a strong proponent of Aristotle’s teaching that good government begins with the individual and then the family, then to community, city, state, and so on. So, in Tupelo, where I am now resident, I have become a known person as well as an advocate for the arts. I am currently exhibiting my work at the Gumtree Museum of Art, which is the only such institution for hundreds of miles. I am working with the Tupelo Civic Ballet on their fundraising show, which is coming up in November. And I’ll be participating in a show in the Oxford area of the Ole Miss campus to promote a friend’s book about photography in the south and in Cuba. I speak with the mayor about policy changes, and I am pushing for an Arts Council, which I hope will be funded by the city. I am also pushing for an arts initiative, that a percentage of funds be diverted to the arts for all new public construction projects.”

Sylvain describes a typical day as follows: “Two years ago, I was struck with repeated shingles attacks. Last year, I was diagnosed with diabetes. So, my day starts with pills. Coffee, household chores and getting lunch. I get the clothes ironed and ready for my spouse, Sandra Hendrix. Without her, I would be homeless. In exchange for my skills as a plumber, carpenter, electrician, architect, landscaper, and damn good cook, she pays the bulk of the bills. Whatever I make from the occasional sale of artwork or side projects gets thrown into the financial pot - whenever it happens, which is not often enough – yet. In the afternoon, I get to the computer and check, update, and respond to various websites, pages, and emails. Then the rest of the day is divided between creating new stretched canvases, painting, drawing, creating advertisements, a little cooking and baking, sorting through images, playing in Photoshop - and did I say painting?”

Sylvain’s advice to artists who are starting out: “First, artists must make a difficult decision. They must choose between two things: a business trajectory in which they produce a product; or a trajectory that consists of searching and personal development - that is, like a scientific search for personal truths. I don’t believe the two pursuits can co-exist in the artist. If an artist seeks wealth through art, he or she must make decisions based on what the market wants - whereas, seeking truths through the practice of art has no market or valuation other than one’s very being. In each case, the definition of success is completely different.”

To view Sylvain’s art, please go to: http://artsylvain.com/

*****

Image Credit: Sylvain Chamberlain


Read more at The Art People

Joel de la Fuente

by Udoka Gabriella Okafor

Actor Joel de la Fuente plays Dr. Johann Price on the Emmy nominated Netflix original television series Hemlock Grove. The horror series is centered around the brutal murder of a girl in a Pennsylvania town, and is based on Brian McGreevy’s novel by the same name. Despite an initially tepid reception by traditional industry critics, the morbidly captivating supernatural thriller has managed to secure a loyal fan base consisting primarily of teenage horror fans. Exploring a range of issues, the show leaves its viewers begging for more, while they grapple with themes related to fantasy, myth, and love.

In our interview, Joel agreed to talk to us about his training, his career, and about his role in Hemlock Grove. He explained that he was cast in the role of Dr. Johann Price as a result of an interesting series of coincidences: “The short and simplified version of how I ended up in Hemlock Grove is that I randomly made a video of myself doing a Morgan Freeman impersonation and put it on Facebook. Then, a friend I had not talked to in fifteen years saw it while at a wedding in Mexico, and showed it to someone else - who ended up being the head of the studio that was producing Hemlock Grove. Because of that video, [the head of the studio] tossed my name into the casting process, and I ended up getting the role.”

Originally from the North Shore of Chicago, Joel has lived in the New York City area for the last 23 years. He studied Theatre Arts at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and graduated from The New York University Graduate Acting Program: “Acting is interesting, in that it requires skill, talent, and appetite. Talent is useful, but one needs technique to manifest that talent. Some people possess an inherent sense of technique, but many of us must learn it like any other trade. This is where studying becomes useful.”

“I would credit my training at the Grad Acting Program at NYU for giving me a set of tools that enable me to do my job, regardless of my level of inspiration. My time at Brown was invaluable for a slightly different reason. Yes, taking acting seriously is important – but so is living life fully. If you have all the technique in the world, it will mean nothing if you have no personal experience from which to draw on. College is one way for people to explore - socially, academically, and spiritually. It is a safe environment [in which] to take risks. Live life first. Act second.”

Joel, who is an avid classical theatre performer, told me about his experience with the National Asian American Theatre Company: “NAATCO’s mission statement, which has changed slightly over the past few years, was to put on the best plays in the Western canon – the “classics,” as it were – and to do them with Asian American casts. Since there was, and is, a dearth of opportunity for Asian American actors, how can they hone their craft, how can they improve, how can they test themselves with such little opportunity? By [putting on] the best plays in western theatre, not only would it create an opportunity for Asian American actors, it would give them fantastic material to work with. For me, NAATCO has [become] an artistic home over the years, [which is] an invaluable gift for an actor. Without NAATCO, I may never have had an opportunity to play roles like Iago in Othello or the title role in Chekhov’s Ivanov. Both experiences have had a profound impact on me as a person and as an actor.”

Although Joel is extremely grateful for the work he does as a television and film actor, he admits that he has a particular affection for theatre work: “Honestly, it is just great to work. It’s great to have a chance to act. It’s great to have people want to come see the [shows] I’m in. So, if I’m working anywhere, I’m happy… Television really increases the number of people who can see one’s work. It’s really amazing to know that literally millions of people are going to see what you and your fellow actors create! Plus, it pays the rent… That said, there’s nothing quite like performing in front of a live audience, sharing something with a community of your fellow citizens. There’s nothing like being present, as an actor or audience member, for an event that is inherently special, that was [created] just for the people in that room. That’s theatre.”

For the last year and a half, Joel has starred in a solo play called “Hold These Truths” by American playwright Jeanne Sakata – that is inspired by the true story of first generation Japanese-American Gordon Hirabayashi. Hirabayashi, who is known for his principled resistance to the Japanese American internment during WWII, took his plea for justice all the way to the Supreme Court. Joel’s performance as the iconic Hirabayashi has earned him a nomination for a 2013 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance: “I will be taking [the play] to North Carolina in April and hopefully to other places in the future. It’s a very special piece, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”

Joel’s belief in the power of happiness has informed the love and passion he brings to his career as an actor. His advice to young actors? “I think we have a responsibility to promote happiness. When we’re happy, we can make others happy. If we’re not trying to make others happy, why are we on this planet, anyway? A big part of this means finding out what you love, whom you love, why you love and taking it seriously. If acting is your dream, then be serious about pursuing it. It can be a long and hard road – so don’t forget why you started pursuing it in the first place. And if it stops being something that makes you happy, then find something else.”

For those of you who are curious about what’s in store for Season Two of Hemlock Grove, Joel had only the following to say: “Many of the questions left hanging in Season One will be answered quite definitively in Season Two. If you’re interested in what goes on in the White Tower, you will be a very happy camper in Season Two.”

*****

Photo Credit: Lia Chang

Originally published by TheSocietyCynic.com

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at The Actors

Close To Home

by Jeff Musillo

In the beginning, I see nothing but darkness.

My eyes are closed.

Electronic music is playing. Very bass-y. Muffled and low at first, but I can still feel it in my bones. The music starts to build and build and build. After a while the sound becomes clear. Anticipation amplifies. At last, the song kicks into full gear.

BOOM!

I open my eyes. I’m inside an unnamed New York City nightclub. The music is blaring and a wild, overexcited rave party has hit full stride.

Catching the intensity of the party, I look rapidly from person to person. From flashing image to flashing image. The ravers are mostly in their early-to-mid twenties, and the music is undoubtedly driving their energy. Excitement and merriment are in every direction.

Surrounded by machine-generated smoke and a plethora of multicolored beams of light, the D.J. is on stage spinning and mixing records, generating the animated atmosphere. He moves methodically, vigorously. He sweats as much as his partying admirers.

I glide around the venue, brushing up close to countless ravers as they dance and celebrate. Some of them are so in-the-moment they seem disconnected from everything else.

Some ravers scream and chant blissfully. They look directly at me. The ambiance is hectic and slightly overwhelming, but I’m not frightened. Smiles, fist-pumping, making out – it’s all taking place in this club. For those in attendance, this rave is an amazing moment in their lives. All is great.

The D.J. drops the bass.

I blackout for three seconds.

I open my eyes.

The D.J. drops the bass again.

I blackout for another three seconds.

The D.J. drops the bass once more.

I blackout again.

I find myself thinking back to what happened a couple of days ago.

I was in Manhattan. Midtown. I was walking. It was a chilly day. I was bundled up in heavy clothing. My hands were in my pockets as I walked speedily with my head tilted downward. Occasionally, my eyes locked onto the untied shoelaces of my worn-out Converse sneakers.

I walked. No, I smacked the sidewalk with my feet, almost as if I were being chased by something demonic. I did my best to weave around the other pedestrians.

It felt as if I were already in mid-conversation when I finally arrived at Drew’s apartment.

“I do. I really do, man. I honestly appreciate the opportunity here.”

This is what I told Drew.

“You know… you know my deal. I’ve been telling you over and over. So yeah, I appreciate you helping me out. It’s just…”

I paused and looked around the apartment. It was a bit untidy, but it was also somewhat spacious and had a contemporary vibe.

Even so, I was visibly uncomfortable. I was sitting on the corner of Drew’s bed. I was out-of-place. My legs twitched at a very accelerated pace.

I continued: “It’s just… I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with everything. I’m not sure if doing this is right or whatever.”

Searching for a response, I looked up from the floor.

Drew didn’t say anything. He just stared at me. He was sitting in a black plastic folding chair. He was nearly thirty years old.

Drew was wearing a hoodie and basketball shorts. His face was stern. It was obvious that he was in no mood for uncertainty.

He said to me: “It’s true. I do know your deal. You’ve told me everything. You’ve blathered non-stop. Went on and on about how much your life sucks.”

“I didn’t say that,” I replied.

“You didn’t not say it.”

There was more silence. It went on for a little while. It went on until Drew spoke again:

“Face it. Your life sucks. It really does. There’s no other way to look at it. You’re a fucking college dropout with dirt poor parents. Good luck getting a job in real society, one that won’t give you constant thoughts of suicide… You’re broke right? Like dead-ass broke?”

“Yeah.”

“So where exactly does that leave you? Huh? I’ll tell you where it leaves you. On a grim street full of deadbeats. I mean, think about what you’ve told me. Your girlfriend broke up with you. Why? Because you can’t get your shit together. It’s obvious she didn’t want your broke ass bringing her down… What was her name? Oh right. Leslie.”

“Abby.” I said, correcting Drew.

I pictured Abby in my mind, up-close and dreamlike. She was smiling, with an expression of pure delight. She had dirty blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Porcelain skin. Although her image flashed quickly through my mind, it was easy to remember the beauty of Abby.

“Why’d she leave you?” Drew asked, prepared to answer his own question. “She left because you have nothing going for yourself.”

I didn’t even register the offensive nature of Drew’s statement. I just continued to lose myself in thoughts of Abby.

“She’s perfect. Perfect. She made everything better. Made it easier to breathe.”

I said this as I thought of Abby smiling.

“We met at a rave.” This is what I told Drew. “That’s where it all started. We popped a couple Molly’s and made out all night. A week after that we were living together. It was amazing… That was almost a year ago.”

Once again, I thought of Abby smiling.

I finally looked up and told Drew: “Now it’s all gone to shit.”

This is where Drew saw his chance to manipulate the situation in his favor.

“Because you let it go to shit.” This is what Drew told me as I took a long breath and exhaled loudly while shaking my head. My eyes were back on the dirty carpet.

Drew continued: “Look. Life has a way of getting in the way. Shit goes south. People lose their jobs, their self-worth, their girls. That’s what happens. But it happens because people let it happen to themselves. I’m trying to help you out here. I’m giving you a shot to get back on your feet. And who knows? You make some money with me, you might be able to get Abby back. Fuck that, you will be able to get Abby back.”

This is when I flashback to another day. Abby in a small but clean apartment. Packing her clothes into a big suitcase, getting ready to leave me. I remembered that she grabbed a thin, red and white striped scarf and wrapped it around her neck. The scarf was striking and beautiful.

My mind returned to Drew’s apartment. I thought about getting Abby back into my life.

I said, “That would be incredible.”

I paused for a moment, then continued: “But listen, I… I just don’t know if I can do this. To have a high-quality batch to work with - that would be one thing. But selling shit that’s sub-par… I just don’t know if it’s right.”

“That’s the way it works, pal,” Drew responded. “That’s the business. And from where I’m sitting, I don’t know if you have any other options. I mean, it’s nothing on my end. I don’t want to be harsh, but if you don’t want to do this, like, if you really don’t want to be a part of this, I can just reach out to someone else and have them sell for me. That’s not a problem. The problem is all on you. What’re you going to do without my help? Without the money? How are you going to pay rent? How are you ever going to get your girl back?”

“That’s all I want,” I said to Drew. “All I want is to have Abby back in my life.”

“Well let’s cut the shit and make it happen. Here, check this out.”

Drew stood up from his chair and walked to the closet. He opened the door and pulled out a bag full of pills and tossed it onto his desk next to a much bigger bag of pills.

“If it makes you feel better, I have that extra stash of high-quality Molly,” Drew said. “That came from a more legit dude. But his supply is low, which is why we gotta sell this other shit too.”

I nodded. Despondently.

Drew told me: “Don’t worry. It’s all different from before. People know what they’re doing now. The level of danger is basically non-existent. So don’t think about any of that shit. The only thing you have to do is sell the better pills at a higher price.”

I stared at the two bags of pills with anxious eyes.

“You do that and all will be great.”

This is what Drew told me.

Blackout.

Following a few soundless seconds, the volume of electronic music begins to escalate and I realize that I’m in the rave club. The unnamed New York City Nightclub. I’m back to living in the now. The crowd is celebrating ecstatically. I am weaving my way through an enormous tide of partyers. My head is barely raised.

Another blackout.

Only one day earlier, I was in my apartment. It was the same apartment where Abby packed her bag to leave. But it was no longer the place it once was. The apartment was filled with large amounts of trash. It seemed as if everything I owned was scattered and chaotically thrown about.

Electronic music was playing in the background as I sat in a worn-out computer chair. My entire body was tremendously fidgety. I stared at my desk.

On the desk were the two bags I had initially received from Drew. Surrounding those two bags, which were now mostly empty, were tons of small baggies filled with pills.

I had drawn red circles on most of the small baggies.

I stood up and approached my desk. I emptied the remaining pills from Drew’s low-quality bag into a small baggie. I then used a red Sharpie to draw a circle on it, and sealed it.

Then, I opened a high-quality baggie, one without a red circle on it, removed a pill, and popped it into my mouth.

Blackout.


Another blackout.


One last blackout.


Electronic music is playing quietly in the dark. The volume begins to increase, rising higher and higher until the bass finally drops.

I am back at the unnamed New York City Nightclub. The entire club is going crazy. My head is in a somewhat drooped position. I’m damp with perspiration.

I feel anxious.

In the midst of all the partying, a random raver nods in my direction and approaches me. I nod back. A quick drug deal takes place. The exchange involves a baggie without a red circle.

The buyer walks away. Indiscretely, I take a pill out of my pocket and pop it into my mouth.

More partying ensues and, in only a short amount of time, a similar nodding exchange occurs between myself and another client. This one is a young and attractive woman.

I reach into the same pocket as before but come out empty-handed. I hesitate. The girl pushes her money in my direction. Understanding the need for a quick decision, with Drew’s voice coursing its way through my mind, I simply nod, more to myself than to the girl, reach into my pocket and pull out a baggie with a red circle.

There’s no going back now. I make the exchange and immediately walk away from my buyer.

This drug deal initiates a montage of sorts. A rapid-fire sequence showing me making deals. Various hands exchanging money and accepting baggies with red circles. People dancing. All of this happening over and over again. My clients are now giving the red circle baggies to other ravers. And it’s all taking place in an incredibly fast, head-spinning manner.

I have obviously done my job. The pills have made their way throughout the club.

I begin to feel calmer. I’m loosening up and dancing to the music. The sounds of the club move me, shaking me up until I am moving with full force.

Finally free of concern, I chant out loud, harmonizing with the music:
“I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care!”

I chant this statement repeatedly. Some other partyers chant with me.

And then somewhere, in the near distance, a woman screams - over all the chanting and the music.

The people around me turn away and look toward the screaming. But I don’t. I continue to dance because I can’t hear the screaming. I am too lost in my own world. Too lost in feeling that I am finally prepared to move forward with my life.

I am completely unaware of the chaos nearby.

If I had only followed the stares of the other ravers. If I had only moved toward the screaming, well - I would’ve seen the group of people circling around the screaming girl.

I would’ve seen that she was beyond hysterical. I would’ve seen that she was pointing at her friend convulsing on the floor.

I would have seen the dirty blonde hair and the red and white scarf wrapped around her friend’s neck. I would’ve seen that the girl dying on the floor was Abby.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t see Abby. And I didn’t see that there was a baggie with a red circle in her hand.

*****

Image Credit: Istockphoto

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at The Writers

Opening Shop at ezebee

by Ossian Vogel

Serial entrepreneur, Ossian Vogel, is CEO and co-founder of Switzerland-based online marketplace ezebee.com. In celebration of the company’s first year anniversary, Ossian has graciously agreed to talk to us about the vision behind his project: “ezebee is an international marketplace and community where creative entrepreneurs can start selling online, for free. We think that selling online should be easy, and we want to help people do that without having to pay any fees.” Although Ossian welcomes all kinds of businesses to the ezebee marketplace, he admits that the site was specifically designed to cater to those who may not have the resources to start their own website. Ossian encourages larger businesses that currently have their own websites to consider using the ezebee platform as a promotional tool to help spread the word about their brand.

Unlike other online shopping platforms including Prostores, Shopify, Dawanda, and Etsy, ezebee allows small business owners to open an online shop at zero cost - without the hassle of administrative fees, contingent costs, revenue sharing, or commissions. Nor does ezebee operate on a freemium model in which an upgraded package is offered to the user in exchange for payment. With the exception of a few promotional tools which are available to users at a small additional cost, and optional billing and accounting features that may soon become available to users in exchange for a monthly fee, Ossian has assured me that he has no plans to pass any costs onto shop owners. His objective is to generate revenues by offering a diversified range of optional tools and features to ezebee shop owners, and by selling advertising.

In our interview, Ossian told me that his team has developed a free Facebook app for users, and that ambitious plans are currently in the works to make ezebee available in many other parts of the world: “The app provides a way for business owners to add their ezebee shop to their Facebook page. The app displays all the items that are in the user's ezebee shop and allows other ezebee users to buy directly from the user’s Facebook page. For the coming year we plan to release the mobile version of our site, add a quotation and invoice tool, and expand the domain to other parts of the world.”

Completely self-funded, ezebee launched in beta in February 2013 with a team of twenty programmers, translators, graphic designers, and PR representatives: “Together, we manage a site that functions in seven different languages and which supports 150,000 users daily. Since our launch, the response has been astounding! Our users come from 87 different countries, and there have been many positive responses from the press as well as from the blogging community. We've recently celebrated our one year anniversary with a campaign on the popular crowdfunding site, Indiegogo – and we hope that with the support and encouragement of our users, this coming year will be even more successful than the first.”

*****

Ossian and his business partner, Frank De Vries, were inspired to start ezebee when they realized how great an impact the economic crisis would have on certain parts of the world: “Frank and I are both into helicopters. Frank owns a helicopter business in Mallorca. In the summer of 2012, I called him to see if he wanted to meet up and maybe go on a flight with me. That's when we started talking about our businesses and about the economic crisis. Frank and I wondered about how people were handling the economic crisis in regions like Europe and the United States. We felt that small business owners in particular would be deeply affected by the crisis, and we wanted to find a way to help them.”

“Since both of us run businesses of our own, we realized that others could also do so, but that they may not have the means to start. So, by creating ezebee, we wanted to give entrepreneurs an easy way to create an online shop without having to pay for a web domain or a designer. We also didn’t want business owners to have to pay the fees that are required on other sites.”

Ossian and Frank currently work together at ezebee, with Ossian overseeing design and programming while Frank manages all aspects of operations and finance: “Frank is also our business angel. He studied economics, and has worked as a consultant for a long time. Like myself, he founded and operated his own company and has been self-employed ever since. Frank handles all of the financials for ezebee. I handle the creative aspects, working on web development with the site designer and programmers. Frank handles the finer details, making sure our project is fully funded and running smoothly.”

Ossian is no stranger to the world of entrepreneurship: “Since I was six years old, I wanted to become a helicopter pilot. When I was sixteen, I went to the U.S. to get my pilot's license. Soon after that, I opened my own helicopter school. From then on I’ve always operated my own business.” When he’s not working on ezebee, Ossian oversees the management of another company he founded many years ago called Display-Max: “We produce and sell event displays such as inflatable tents, gates, or product replicas. When I left the U.S. to come back to Europe, I started doing aerial photography in Germany. That's when we developed a special kind of blimp that was branded with advertisements. It was often booked for big sporting events.”

“After going to those events I realized that the people running them needed more than just blimps. They needed a whole assortment of inflatable advertisements. So, we started producing those too. Having had my own business for ages now, there are a lot of things I’ve learned that have helped me with ezebee, like marketing, finance, managing a team, and understanding markets. I think there is so much more I can do to help make ezebee great, and to help other shop owners improve their SEO and gain higher placement in searches.”

Although Ossian admits that he and Frank have encountered several challenges along the way, he is determined in his mission to customize ezebee’s services to the requirements of many different countries and cultures: “The most difficult part was to create a truly international marketplace, in which everyone feels at home. I think we finally managed to do so by adjusting many factors based on different cultures, including having the page run in seven different languages. All the same, we often hear that we have a very European style.”

Currently headquartered in Switzerland, near Lake Zurich, with an operations office in Palma de Mallorca, Ossian believes that Switzerland is well equipped to handle the needs of start-ups: “Switzerland is a perfect place to start your own company. There are fewer administrative obstacles and the taxing is fair. On the other side, Mallorca is a very international island. Many people from around the world come here to find job opportunities, so it was easy for us to recruit talented employees. Our location, for example, was a key factor in building our team of translators. We made the perfect match.”

*****

Ossian and Frank have recently begun the process of searching for investment capital: “Up until now, the project has been completely self-funded. We are currently looking into other funding options and are also talking to investors. We are looking for $250,000 to keep the project funded. We hope that this amount will come from multiple sources including Frank and myself, crowdfunding, and outside investors. These funds will go towards keeping the site running, and will enable us to add additional features and tools for the benefit of our users. The funds will also be used for marketing purposes, so we can continue to grow.”

Although this is Ossian’s first experience with crowdfunding, he is very pleased with the results so far: “We are more excited by how many people are finding out about us. Every time our Indiegogo link is shared, we get more users on ezebee and that result has been outstanding. Our current campaign with Indiegogo has been a great way for people to show their support for ezebee and to spread the word about the site, letting other business owners know that ezebee.com is a great free resource for selling online.”

*****

Ossian has the following tips and advice for fellow start-up entrepreneurs:

1. In general, entrepreneurs should thoroughly research investment opportunities and look at the investment company’s philosophy and criteria to make sure they find a good match. If a start-up needs capital in the vicinity of $10,000 to $50,000, it would be a good idea to find an accelerator fund that is on the lookout for innovative ideas and that can support projects from the start. If more capital is needed, entrepreneurs should look for venture capital firms because they usually have the ability to support a start-up financially as well as strategically. It’s a good idea to look for investment companies that are local because investors are often more interested in supporting a project that is closer to home.

2. Another good idea is to find a mentor - an executive, an investor, or business angel who has knowledge and experience in your field and who can provide invaluable advice on the future direction of the company. Usually mentors are also very well connected in the business world and can make introductions to investment companies that might be able to provide financial assistance.”

3. If you’re trying to raise money by crowdfunding, remember to keep at it! One of the best ways to spread the word about your campaign is through cross-promotion and collaboration. We love working with other entrepreneurs who have the same interests as we do. We are happy to support their work as much as they support us. The support of friends and family is really important too. I think they are probably the most important people you can count on to help you spread the word about your campaign.

4. Talk to people, make connections, and trust your instinct!

For more information about ezebee, please go to: http://www.ezebee.com/

To contribute to ezebee's Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, please go to: http://goo.gl/qL1pJA

*****

Image Credit: ezebee

Image Description: Ossian Vogel and Frank De Vries

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Forgiving The Whale

by David Philip Norris

A friend of mine, Sarah, has recently moved to Vienna for nine months. She’s documenting the journey in her blog, My Life Abroad, in which she’s told her readers that she’ll be gone for “as long as the adventure lasts.”

Sarah and I met many years ago when I was directing a musical production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Sarah was playing the role of Viola, a woman who survives a shipwreck and then disguises herself as a man. After the production, Sarah and I kept in touch only sporadically. Two summers ago, I ran into her again at a Minnesota Fringe Festival performance. It was then that I learned that she too had become an atheist.

Sarah and I both graduated from Northwestern College (now the University of Northwestern), a Christian liberal arts school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In addition to our regular course work, we were required to take classes in Bible and Christian theology. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music composition in 2004 and came out as an atheist in 2011. Whereas my loss of faith could be described as violent and even cataclysmic, Sarah’s was characterized by a general sense of relief and joyful acceptance: “I don’t have to believe this anymore!” she said.

Since then, I’ve met with many other Northwestern alums who have taken a path similar to the one Sarah and I have carved out for ourselves. Most of us were raised in fundamentalist Christian homes, and had decided to attend a Christian college to further our education and to learn more about our faith. Like Viola in Twelfth Night, we had experienced the “shipwreck of doubt” that had left us washed up ashore, alone and in an unfamiliar land.

Over the past three years, I have been honored to meet with other former fundamentalists and to hear their coming-out stories. We have approached our loss of faith differently, but all of us have found a way to make sense of our lives - without God.

*****

Music has played a central role throughout my life. My father is a music professor, and I have been surrounded by music from an early age. I remember my parents playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in the car, or on the stereo at home. In high school, I studied works like Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. From these, I taught myself about music theory and composition.

I grew up in rural Kansas. My family and I were heavily involved in the community life of our church. My father served on the elder board, my mother taught Sunday school, and we all helped out at church events. Our congregation had a rich hymn-singing tradition. Once a month, there was a Sunday evening service, during which members called out hymn titles and everyone would sing them together. When we moved to Minnesota in 1993, my family wanted to find a similar church that valued music as a part of worship. We found such a church about ten miles from where we had settled. It would be our spiritual home for the next fourteen years.

Before moving to Minnesota, I had been exposed mainly to hymns and to the occasional “modern” song. However, at our new church, the music director was a gifted and knowledgeable pianist and musician, and a skilled leader. When my family first began attending, the choir had almost eighty voices – and they were good ones. In one of our first weeks there, a soprano in the choir sang a gorgeous piece of Classical music, something I’d never encountered before in church music.

The orchestra, too, was staffed by incredibly talented volunteer instrumentalists who saw their involvement as an act of worship. My father, a professional trumpet player, decided to get involved and was soon playing in the orchestra and for offertories. That December, the music ministry put on its annual Christmas concert. The music performed that day rivaled that produced by any professional ensemble.

Author and educational adviser Ken Robinson has written: “People often think of amateurs as second-rate, as those who perform well below professional levels.” Looking back to that Christmas concert and to countless other Sunday mornings, there was nothing amateurish or second-rate about those musicians. There was real skill, passion and dedication in their work that I'd seldom heard or encountered elsewhere.

I would later join both the choir and orchestra. In that environment, I learned about the pursuit of excellence and about how to work with others. These lessons have followed me throughout my adult life.

When I became an atheist, I lost my relationship with the church, and by extension my relationship with the music of the church. In many ways, it felt like a death – an amputation. Some of my fondest memories of my life are of times spent sitting in rehearsals and working with friends to learn and perfect our craft.

*****

Last night, I listened to the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 191, set to the text “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” As the first few notes sounded, I had a flashback to a similar evening many years ago, when I was a teenager sitting on my bedroom floor with my CD player, listening to this very cantata. It strikes me now that I was probably very different from other teenage boys. Growing up, I checked out every Bach cantata recording in the library, drinking in and immersing myself in the music. I can remember desperately wanting to sing the tenor parts, even as biology was dictating my lot as a baritone. In high school and college, I strained to sing high notes even though doing so often left me hoarse and in pain.

Ignoring reality like that left scars in many ways.

But the music – the music was glorious.

*****

Three years before I became an atheist, I had come out to my friends and family. Telling everyone that I was gay had been a gradual and strategic process. I continued to take part in the church, but I made a point of keeping my public and personal lives separate. I knew that the community wouldn’t have looked favorably on my new identity. But, when I came out as an atheist, I furiously rendered all of those parts of my life that had been Christian. I angrily unfurled my anti-theist flag. I let everyone know in no uncertain terms that religious belief was stupid, ignorant, and harmful. Where I had once admired C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, I now idolized Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, and Emma Goldman.

As a student, and in the years after graduating from college, I’d written quite a lot of religious music, both on my own and for use in the church. Once the pieces of my post-deconversion life had started to settle, I began throwing out, rewriting, or repurposing some of that music. Most of it consisted of simply erasing or changing titles. In other cases, the process was more involved. I took a choral piece set to a prayer by Teresa of Ávila, a sixteenth-century mystic and nun, and reset it to a text taken from the Carmina Burana, a collection of sometimes bawdy mediaeval poems composed by theology students and disgraced monks.

I swore never to devote another note of my music or my writing in the service of the religion that had claimed so many years of my life. I felt like Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, howling at his nemesis, the white whale: “…to the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

The music that had once inspired feelings of awe and transcendence now brought up feelings of anger and loathing. The Bach cantatas, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms – music that had once brought me intense joy – were now on the other side of that chasm between my Christian past and my atheist present. In fact, any mention of God, faith, belief, Heaven or Hell turned me into an intellectual berserker, ready to strike down anything that represented the religion that had once oppressed me.

In reality, I was a wounded animal, lashing out at everything and everyone. Like Ahab, the white whale had taken something from me, and I was out for blood.

*****

I believe it was the writing that finally allowed the healing process to begin.

In the fall of 2012, I learned of the Secular Therapist Project. Through it, I found a therapist who I could be sure wouldn't recommend prayer or going to church as a remedy for my problems.

My therapist encouraged me to write about my experience. She felt that it would help me make sense of what had happened. As I began to write, painful memories that I’d worked hard to suppress began to surface, but I found that I could now put them into context. As a child, I did not have permission to not believe. As a young man, I did not know that leaving God behind was an option. But I was an adult now, and I could make sense of things.

It was a difficult process, but I slowly began to forgive myself.

A young atheist woman once asked writer and comedian Julia Sweeney: “What should I tell my mom when she tells me to hold hands and pray before dinner?” Sweeney, well known for her own loss-of-faith story, Letting Go of God, responded: “I would totally do it. I’d become an anthropologist and go, “Oh, the customs of these people! They hold hands and pray to their god!” Humans are social animals, and part of our cohesion is based in ritual.”

Although religion had wounded me, I learned to approach it through the lens of a researcher or a social scientist. I put aside my own biases and experience to understand what made religious people tick.

Eventually, I found that I could listen to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion again without feeling angry.

I realize now that my violent emotional reaction to religion after deconverting was a symptom of the pain and hurt I had experienced. For most of my life, I had suppressed the truth about my sexuality, as well as my doubts about the existence of God. I’d felt justifiably betrayed and abandoned by those I’d trusted and believed. And, like Ahab, I wanted revenge.

My therapist helped me to see that I had experienced a profound loss, and that feelings like these were normal.

*****

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola is washed ashore after a shipwreck in which she believes her twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned. In truth, her brother has survived and through a comedy of errors, Viola and Sebastian are reunited at the end, both very much changed by their journey.

In my youth, I had developed an important relationship to the music I had experienced in church. But now that I find myself on the other side of the chasm, this relationship has changed. When I listen to Bach, I hear an expression of the values and beliefs that were important to the composer himself. The brilliant and late author Douglas Adams put it beautifully: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

I no longer write religious music, not only because I’m an atheist, but because I want to express the values that are most important to me. Values like love, compassion, justice, empathy, honesty, mercy, freedom, and reason.

Through my writing, I’ve come to realize that these are values that I’ve always lived by.

I remain the same person now that I was when I was young.

My twin isn’t drowned after all.

*****

In the months and years after my loss of faith, I mourned the years I’d lost trying desperately to believe and to be a good Christian. I’d wasted so much time trying to be “straight.” Unlike many of my friends, I had not sought out a partner with whom to share my life. Now, I worried that I’d missed that and many other opportunities by resisting reality for so long.

Gradually, it became clear that I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not lived through those experiences. Nor would I be as strong. I realized then that I had to make a choice. I could spend my life mourning the shipwreck, or I could celebrate the life of freedom that coming out had allowed me to lead.

Like my friend Sarah, I’m in this “for as long as the adventure lasts.” The past, like nature, is amoral. Raging against both is simply a waste of what little time we have to live and love. The white whale’s malevolence was only a projection of my own anger over what has been lost. He has lessons to teach, and if I stop to listen, he can also be my friend.

References:

My Life Abroad at www.SarahLysaker.Wordpress.com

Adams, D. (1995). The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. New York, NY: Del Rey Books.

Lysaker, S. (2014, January 14). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from http://sarahlysaker.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/new-post .

Robinson, K. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Spencer, A. (2012, October 10). Hotseat: Julia Sweeney. Retrieved from http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-19746-hotseat_julia_sweeney.html .

*****

Image Credit: Creative Commons, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Image Description: Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick, by I. W. Taber, from Moby-Dick, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1902

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