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Helga Davis: Artist-in-Residence, Carolina Performing Arts


November 16, 2020 | Sophia Ramos

Helga Davis, musician, artist, Carolina Performing Arts artist in residence speaks with us on the life of an interdisciplinary artist.

 

Transcript

Philip Hollingsworth:

Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, I speak with artists and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Creative Futures Artist-in-Resident Fellow Helga Davis. In our conversation, Helga Davis speaks on the life of being an interdisciplinary artist. Are you in Chapel Hill right now? Or in the area?

Helga Davis: 

I am not.

PH: 

Okay

HD: 

So we see the start right there.

PH: 

Yeah.

HD: 

I am in New York. I live in Harlem.

PH: 

Oh, wow. Okay.

HD: 

And I think that this is the most time I’ve spent in my apartment. And I don’t mean just the most consecutive days. I mean months, for probably the last 10 years, maybe even more than that. And so it’s been quite a shift. Because I’m a person who lives here, but whose life is out there.

PH: 

So what, what where would you be out? Where would you in a normal circumstance? Are you visiting places, are you traveling a lot? I’m just curious.

HD:

I’m usually traveling for work. And right now, I would be in Italy. And so there’s an Italian composer that I’ve worked with for the last 10 years. And he’s always dreaming up fun and interesting things for us to do. The last piece that we worked on together was a version of Faust. And so, I would probably be in Italy right now. Also a piece that I was working on with Hilton Alves. That was to be at UNC. Got canceled too. So there were actually two projects there. And as you know, I am also a Creative Futures Fellow, but that work continues.

PH: 

Yeah, I guess it’s a good point to enter into that. Can you talk a little bit about your role in the Creative Futures and, and what brought you to working with Carolina Performing Arts at UNC Chapel Hill.

HD:

So one, I am one of four. Wow, it’s so crazy. Ah, I’m very fortunate to be one of four Fellows. I’m one of four Creative Futures Fellows. And I don’t accept to say that we are all in the world just kind of doing our work. I’m not sure how I was selected to be a fellow. But I sure am glad that I have been selected to be a fellow. A fun fact is that I am the one fellow who has actually worked with all of the other fellows. But they’ve not necessarily worked with one another. And so, I’m always — and I think like many artists — looking for opportunities, not only to collaborate, but to learn about a new place, to go to a new place, to study a new place. And to see what that place has to teach me. To see what it is that I do in the world that can also offer opportunities for the people who live in that place. And to see how what I do can also kind of broaden my own creative conversation and practice.

PH: 

Great, thank you. And just so if people don’t know, can you talk a little bit about where you come as an artist or being in performance art, music, what your experiences are? Your specialty perhaps?

HD:

[laughs] So I’m a tricky one-

PH: 

Yeah.

HD:

in that regard. I do a lot of things. And I encourage all performance artists, people, to do many things. So I am a singer. I also write music. I’m also an actor. And I collaborate with all kinds of people. I’m also, I have a podcast that comes out of New York Public Radio and WQXR called Helga, so that’s easy to remember. And what I can say mostly about that is that I feel that all of the things that I do, are still aspects of my one creative output. They are different manifestations of my one creative output. They are the places that my curiosity and sometimes my invitations have brought me to.

For instance, I’ve never thought that I would have a podcast or be on the radio. But a friend of mine- I was working at at New York Public Radio at WNYC, 10 years — no, it’s 12 years ago now — in 2008. And I was invited to come there, as a cool New York artist who should just come and play some music and talk about it. And I never, I was not looking to do that. And then I sat down. And as I like to say, I took my shoes off. I felt completely at home, behind the microphone, talking to people, talking about music, talking about whatever.

And so a few years later, as I was doing my work in the world, and one of those things was being on tour with Toshi also being on tour with Sherif. I was asked again — as podcasts became more popular — to host a podcast. And I said no way, every idiot in the world has a podcast, why would I want to do that? And so, after a bit of cajoling, I sat down with my first person. And that person happened to be Peter Sellars, the director, Peter Sellars. And once again, life and kind of the flow of creative process in life, led me to Peter. I was at the Park Avenue Armory, watching his production of St. Matthew, Passion Bach for St. Matthew Passion. And it was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It was gorgeous. And I look up. And there’s Peter. And something just said to me, go ask him, ask him to come and talk to you. And so I did. And so before I knew it, and not even before I knew it, that Monday morning, I was sitting across from Peter Sellars having the most wonderful conversation, not about his work, not about St. Matthew Passion, but about life, about his path, about his passions. And how he came to be sitting across from me that day.

PH: 

That’s great. Yeah, I find, you know, doing this and I guess a point of connection there is just, I’ve had so many times where I just want to ask people and talk to people- just curious about their work. If I’m curious about their work, you just throw it out and say, hey, I’m interested in talking to you. Most people will say yes. And then you just have these great conversations and different perspectives. And I think part of me wanting to do this podcast is just being curious, like you were saying, and just listening to people. And so I think it’s great that you have all these various skills and abilities within the art and performing art that you have. So that’s, I’m just curious about what you say, because it seems like a lot of people, the common thing to do is to kind of stick to one thing and you said you encourage people to kind of do many things. So what, can you expound on that? I just, I’m curious about that, how you respond to folks that want to like specialize?

HD:

So I can answer you this way. I was watching a Bruce Lee documentary called Be Water. And Bruce Lee says, that because of style, people are separate. Because styles became law. And it’s not that I don’t think people should specialize in a thing. If you love singing, then sing. Just do that. You can be great at that. I’m talking more about a way of life. That forces my hand, because it says well, yeah, you’re a singer, but you’re in a piece that needs a song. And you have an idea for a song. So shouldn’t you write the song? Or, yeah, okay, so you wrote the song, but you also have an idea about conversation you’d like to have, shouldn’t you go and have the conversation? And that’s more what I’m talking about. So we always want to work with the best violinists and the best bass players and the- right? Because they also bring out that best in us. But we don’t want to get trapped into the idea, this one thing right here, and I can’t do anything else, I can’t think about anything else, I can’t understand the world, from a different point of view, I am only committed to this law of whatever it is. And this I think, makes us less interesting musicians or whatever we are, and much less interesting people. And what we need in this moment is to be able to be conversant over many fields-

PH: 

Yeah.

HD: 

because we never know who we’re going to meet. And where that meeting can take us to continue to learn about who we are. And to expand our creative practices, it just keeps coming back to that. And that’s not to say that I did all of these things, or that I do all of these things and that I was always good at them.

PH: 

Right

HD: 

Whatever that means, right? There’s a learning curve, I had to learn even just how to breathe differently, so that I could- I wasn’t breathing like a singer when I was working on a podcast. So I was making a lot of noise with my nose all the time. [laughs] It’s like, well, not here for that. So it’s just from that point of view. And I definitely, I totally get that we want to be great at a thing. But we don’t want to be trapped by a thing. By that same thing.

PH: 

Yeah, I appreciate that. Because I feel like I — in my experience — I’ve kind of hopped and dabbled between a lot of different things like I used to, I was in graduate school for Spanish and Latin American literature. So, you know, I was teaching Spanish language. I was, you know, into studying literature and writing about it, literary criticism and all that. But you know, at the same time, like, I tried to do my own music at the same time, I’m interested in stuff like this. And so that I feel like that’s really affirming and not that you’re just kind of scatterbrained or all over the place, but that you draw these inspirations from different spots in your life, because you know, you’re not just one thing.

HD: 

But it is all one creative source.

PH: 

I see. Yes. I was okay. But have time for one more question. If that’s okay.

HD: 

Yeah.

PH: 

And this is something we ask all our guests, what’s a book that changed your life?

[laughs] Oh, you guys. And see, like, that’s the thing, too, is no, it’s never the one book.

PH: 

Yeah, that’s why I use the indefinite article ‘a’ instead of ‘the.’

HD:

Ok. Alright. So here are two things that I’m working on now. This I got from my birthday a few years ago. This is writings by the painter and visual artist, Donald Judd. And here’s what I like about this. It is as much a comment on his work and the system of selling art, as it is a comment on the time and the society that influences his work. And so I always, I love this kind of approach to writing. Because it takes the specific and also draws in the general. So we learn about Donald Judd, we learn about his creative process, we learn about the gallery system, and we also learn about the time that he’s in while he’s working this. I think any kind of book like this would make me happy, but this is the one I’m in right now.

PH: 

Thanks for that. That reminds me of a book I just read called Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, have you- do you know about this book?

HD:

No. Am I going to get a gift in the mail?

PH: 

I’d love to yeah. She’s a Korean American poet. And so it’s a book of essays and it does a similar thing from what you’ve described about that particular book. And she’s writing about her- basically, how she came to be the poet she is and coming through that. But also through this lens of being a Korean in America and dealing with that Asian American experience. So it just reminded me of that book I read a few weeks ago. So you had one more.

HD:

The second book is James Baldwin’s Another Country. This has actually completely fallen apart.

PH: 

Oh wow, yeah.

HD:

It literally is disintegrating in my hands every time I turn the page. I just finished this morning. And I am in tears of gratitude for how much I was looking to read something that wasn’t true. I can’t read any more about reconstruction. I can’t read any more about redlining and when I say any more, I mean, this week. I needed to be able to put my mind, I guess, on someone else’s troubles that weren’t mine. I don’t know why I would pick up James Baldwin and think I was going to get away from that. But there you have it. And this particular work, what I love about it is that the other country is actually this country. Another Country is a person, Another Country is not only a place. And I love how nuanced and complicated all the views of all the people are. Because this is what is true about all of us. And so hence my twist to a book or the book, or what’s the thing? What do you do? What’s the one thing that you do? Because we- none of us, we’re so much more complex than that. And it’s important, I think, to take the time to be with that complexity. Whether we’re writing though, whether we’re writing, whether we’re singing, whether we’re- whatever it is that we’re doing. So that we’re not, as the theater director Jerzy Grotowski says, so that we’re not tourists in our own lives.

PH: 

Well, thank you for that Helga. Helga Davis, it’s been a pleasure and an honor too to be able to speak with you a little bit and, you know, we keep entering each other’s homes, whether, you know, despite in these circumstances, so- but I just want to thank you for that. Thank you for your time.

HD:

Absolutely. And thank you for having me. And I just, I very, very much am looking forward to being able to come back and to put my body in the space with all of you. Thank you.

PH: 

Thank you.

[music]

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