A Chat With Jacquie Gauthier

Jacquie Gauthier

By Debbie A. McClure

Someone told Canadian ex-radio host, Jacquie Gauthier that we all need to “Find Your Elephant!” When I heard that quote, I had to laugh. After all this is a woman who has literally learned what that means. Imagine falling in love, leaving your country of birth, and starting all over in a foreign country, and in the process, finding yourself. For many years I listened to Jacquie on the local radio station in London, Ontario, Canada, and worked with her on a local Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraiser. However, I never dreamed she’d roam so far, or that one day we’d be talking about elephants and writing books. Welcome Jacquie!

Q: Tell us a little about your books and how you got started.

A: My first book, The Gift Of An Elephant: A Story About Life, Love, and Africa, really came as a result of my Uncle Ernest, who was a missionary in Africa. When I was a little girl, he gave me an ebony elephant carving. I loved that little carving, and it sparked my life-long love of elephants and Africa. In fact, little did I know that my love for him and the seeds he planted, would sprout much later in life.As a result of my great uncle, I’ve always had an affinity for Africa, and for helping other people. 

I’ve had what I believe is a pretty bumpy ride to where I’m at now, living in Africa with my husband, and my passionate involvement with elephant and African wildlife conservation.  I wanted to share my own personal experiences in Africa and Canada, and the journey that’s lead me here, in an effort to remind people that anything, literally anything, you feel deeply about can happen. But change isn’t easy—I don’t think it’s supposed to be. There is a lot of pain along the way, but if you keep going, keep believing in yourself and pursuing what’s important to you, you can create the changes you need in your life. I also know that Africa changes how you view life, yourself, and others. It’s an incredibly unique place on this planet, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve experienced with others.

Q: Explain how you went from London, Ontario to South Africa, and why?

A: A few years ago, when I was at my personal lowest, I decided to go on a mission trip with Canadian Aid For Southern Sudan. My job there was simple. I was to help the kids create art, assist with the music camp, and help work on plays for the kids. I have to tell you, I loved every minute of it!  

One day I went with a group of people to deliver some medicines and interview refugees not far from where we were staying. That’s where I met Johann, a South African paramedic who was working on a U.N. contract at the time. He is such a wonderful man, and we connected immediately. After we got married, Johann came to Canada on Permanent Residence, but he couldn’t find a job. Oddly enough, he landed a job in Mozambique, so returned to Africa to work. We absolutely didn’t want to deal with a long-distance marriage, so I moved to Africa with him, but I didn’t have the documentation to work. This meant I was going to have a lot of time on my hands, which worried me a bit, but I figured something would come along.  

When we were preparing to move to Africa from Canada, I contacted the television show, House Hunters International. What followed was a crazy, fun experience of having our massive life overhaul and move to a new country, filmed. It was a great experience, and we still get stopped on the street by people everywhere who have seen that episode and recognize us!

The problem for me with moving to Africa was that Johann was required to be gone for as much as a month at a time. Because I had the time, I decided to pursue a long-held dream of writing a book. With the success of The Gift Of An Elephant, I was encouraged to write my second book, Twenty-Eight Elephants: And Other Everyday Miracles.  

I won’t say much about Twenty-Eight Elephants right now, except that this book talks to the many experiences, happenstances, and yes, miracles, I’ve had or heard about throughout my life that have changed me irrevocably for the better.

I also have to say that I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to observe, first hand, the unrelenting, inspiring resilience of the people of Africa who’ve been misplaced by famine, war, and drought, yet are happier than many North Americans. Why? Because they value each other. They pay attention, and care for each other—that’s all they have—each other. I’m convinced that miracles, serendipity, God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it, happen all the time.  

Q: You now collaborate on a highly successful new artistic venture with a remarkable artist in Africa to raise funds, awareness, and build a brand new business. How did you and your artistic partner, Alicia Fordyce, meet? 

A: Alicia and I met at an art show in far off and exciting Hoedspruit Limpopo. Alicia was an exhibiting visual artist, and I fell in love with her work. Long story short; we chatted, clicked, and continued to run into each other socially on several occasions after that. Then I had this crazy idea to do fine art and photography on elephant dung paper, which is an amazing product that really isn’t as gross as it sounds. I’ll explain in a moment. The key thing is that Alicia thought it was a great idea too, so we decided to collaborate on this new art project, which we entitled; Two Girls And An Elephant (see link below). The plan was to start a new business by creating original art, sell it, and at the same time, raise funds and awareness of African elephants and rhinos, who are at an alarming risk of becoming extinct if people don’t do something, like NOW!

Q: Tell us about your artwork.

A: Well, we started out thinking of doing prints of Alicia’s paintings and my photography (another passion of mine) on high quality art paper and elephant dung paper . We planned to sell the prints to tourists visiting the area. Of course Alicia and I have the original art, but we weren’t sure it would be as big a seller as it is. Actually, it’s doing exceptionally well! Some of our original art has been exhibited at the Lion Sands Ivory Lodge in Saubi Sands, an absolutely incredible hotel that’s often called “one of the best hotels in the world”, which sits right on the banks of the Sabi River .  

Q: Okay, I gotta ask; what is dung paper, and how do you use it?

A: *laughs* It’s made from elephant dung, or poop. You see, elephants have poor digestive systems, so what remains is mostly grass. The grass is boiled in caustic soda, then water is added to make a paste, which is then spread out on a screen and left in the sun to dry. As you can imagine, it’s a very organic look and is an amazing medium. We work hand-in-hand with a local paper-maker to have the it refined to our precise design specification, which is thinner than what they would normally produce. 

The advantages of this product is that it has such an organic look and texture. This makes it completely different from anything else out there. We like to tell purchasers that this is a great way to bring an authentic piece of Africa home with them, and it is!

The disadvantages of the dung paper are very few. Alicia loves painting on it, however, I will say that printing on it is a bit more difficult, and supply is limited. In addition to larger pieces, we also do greeting cards, book markers, etc., all at different price points of course.

Q: Who benefits from the sale of the artwork?

A: We donate 10% of the proceeds from sales of the artwork to Elephant’s Alive South Africa. 

I’ve also become very involved with a local (African) organization, Wild Shots Outreach, which teaches kids how to use a camera to create beautiful images. It’s imperative we educate the country’s youth about what’s happening in their own backyard regarding the elephant, rhino, and other wildlife populations. They’re the future, so if they can learn to connect to nature, they’re far less likely to be swayed into becoming poachers later in life. They’re also taught the importance of preservation, and where each animal on the planet fits in with it’s natural habitat. Every animal impacts the environment and other animals around it. It’s a domino effect that’s in serious jeopardy of collapsing in several areas.

Q: Tell us a bit about the importance of elephant conservation. Why should people outside Africa care?

A: 36,000 elephants are brutally murdered every year. That’s 96 elephants A DAY, or one every 15 minutes, which is completely unacceptable!

You see, the elephant is what is known as a “keystone” species. In other words, it’s survival impacts the other animals and habitat. When an elephant knocks down a tree, leafy greens are accessed by smaller animals who otherwise wouldn’t have that food source, and the tree itself becomes a nest or hiding refuge for other animals. When an elephant walks in mud, then that mud solidifies, it creates a natural water bowl for smaller animals. Their droppings mean new seeds are delivered to new locations, conveniently encased in fertilizer. 

There are so many ways the African elephant impacts it’s habitat in a positive manner. That’s why I’m doing what I can to raise awareness and funds to help out. Did you know that elephants cry, form complex matriarchal societies, and mourn their dead? These animals matter in a very significant way, and people can definitely do a lot to help end poaching. Can you imagine a world without these majestic, intelligent creatures?

Losing any species off our planet is scary, and potentially dangerous, in ways we can’t even predict yet, but time is our enemy. Things have to change, or in 15 years—15 years, we won’t have wild African elephants at all! A few years ago, scientists predicted that we had maybe 20 years left to protect and preserve the African wild elephant, but it’s happening much faster than originally thought. Awareness from the rest of the world is part of the answer. After all, if people don’t know there’s a problem, we don’t know how or why we need to correct it. I think the answer is in educating young people about nature and the ripple effects. The fact is, many children living close to Kruger National Park have never seen an elephant. This means they have no affinity for the animals. For the adults of a community village, poaching means money—more money than they’ve ever seen before. It’s hard or impossible to say no to that kind of offering, especially if you have a family to feed. When there’s no understanding of why the elephant is important, there’s no reason not to take the money. If people the world over would stop buying ivory, there’d be no demand, and no need to slaughter the animal. Again, it’s about education on many levels. 

Another organization that’s doing its part on behalf of education is “Nourish”. They’re working on building self-sustaining communities to banish poverty. By focusing on early childhood development, food security, English literacy, environmental education, conservation experiences, and entrepreneurial training, they’re making significant inroads with the people living in and around the wildlife areas and game reserves. Teaching the people about how they can benefit from tourism for years to come by helping to preserve it, is a key factor. 

Q: How can people reading this help?

A: *laughs* Donate! Support a charity, buy a product, (like our art) that helps the people living in and around the African elephants and other wildlife, to become more self-sustaining. When you do, you create your own ripple effect, even though you may not necessarily see it first-hand. This actually goes for all wildlife anywhere in the world. What you see us doing in South Africa, can be adapted for other areas of wildlife in need. This our planet. We created these serious problems, but we can fix it too. We just have to do it together.

By sharing my personal experiences in my books, I hope to inspire others to take on new challenges, and recognize the connectivity we are all a part of.

Website: http://www.twogirlsandanelephant.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacquie.gauthier.5

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacquie-gauthier-10983a16/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jacquie-Gauthier/e/B014V288DS

Instagram: jacquie_gauthier_author

Nourish: http://www.nourishnpo.co.za/

Elephants Alive: http://www.elephantsalive.org/

Wildshots Outreach Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wildshotsoutreach/

Ivory Lodge Game Reserve:  https://www.sabi-sands.com/lion-sands-ivory-lodge.html

 

 

 

 

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Off-Screen with Loretta Swit

SWITHEART

It’s a fact of life. At 79, there is no one on the planet who can rock a tube of red lipstick better than Loretta Swit. Although she’s well known by many for her roles in stage, film and television productions (most notably Major Margaret Houlihan in M*A*S*H), it’s almost eclipsed by her passionate talent for painting and her international reputation as an advocate for animal rights. Art and activism find a happy marriage in the release of her new book, SwitHeart, a coffee table edition of 65 full-color paintings and drawings, 22 photographs, and anecdotes about the furry and feathered friends that inspire her.

As she confided in our recent interview, “The toughest part of the book was deciding which images to use. My publisher, Mies (Hora), and I have concluded that we’re just going to have to do another one so as to fit everyone in!”

Proceeds from the book (which is available at SwitHeart.com) are donated to her ongoing campaign to end animal cruelty and suffering across the country and around the world.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: You first discovered your passion for painting when you were six. How have you sustained that passion for all of these years?

A:  By painting, of course, you silly twit! If I’m sitting still, I’m doodling. Constantly! I had a touch of insomnia last night and was thinking about the latest painting I’m working on. I was up until 3 am. Sometimes things just happen. They occur. It could be a stroke or a color or even a background that suddenly makes a painting pop in a way it wouldn’t have in any other context. It’s an incredible journey for me and I sustain my love for painting … by painting! If I’m away from it or if I’m busy traveling, as soon as I can I get back down to it, it’s the first thing I want to do. It’s really not anything regimented. I see something, I’m moved by it, and it becomes my next project.

Q: After you won your first prize for art at such a young age, did you ever think of making that your career?

A: Looking back, it was kind of a cartoony sort of thing. I stalked my mother through the house until she finally agreed to submit my drawing. The next thing I knew, I won! My prize was a cute little pirate’s chest bank. I kept it for years—it was really adorable. It was thrilling for me at six years old to be recognized. As for thinking art could be my career, though, no. Never. Art is something I do the same way I breathe or sleep and it will always be a part of my life. But I also always knew I wanted to be an actor. This is what I wanted, this is what I’m doing and I can say that I’m living the dream. Other people go on vacations. What I do is my vacation because I love being there so much. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to combine wonderful travel with my work. When you’re doing evening work like being in a play, you have time during the day to paint and that’s where you’ll find me.

Q: How does your approach to painting compare/contrast with your approach to acting from a preparation and emotional perspective?

A: For me, they’re different but they both require craft. For instance, I’m a self-taught painter and I’m a hard-working, craft-oriented teacher. I believe in having a strong foundation of craft for your method, for your approach to whatever work you’re doing. There’s nothing mystical about acting but it’s infinitely interesting to me because it’s the study of human behavior. You never really know yourself inside and out because there’s always some new discovery for you. You evolve, you change, you’re affected. When it comes to painting, I very often feel that a higher power reaches out and guides you. For example, I only paint in watercolor and I feel that with watercolor you need the discipline to step back and quit. Otherwise, you can muddy and actually ruin your painting. Not so with oil painting where you have lots of do-overs.

I have had the almost spiritual feeling of something being produced by inspiration and intuition, tweaking colors here and there and then saying, “Did I just do that? That’s really good.” That said, I’m a very harsh critic of my own work. Maybe more lenient as I get older but I’m always taking into consideration that I am self-taught and have learned quite a lot over the years. I think if you’re earnest and committed and it’s a sincere effort, there is always even a small part of every painting that will speak to you and affect you. I compare this to movies. Maybe the movie overall isn’t that great but there’s a moment in it—even a small moment or scene—that stays with you long after it’s over.

Q: Which do you feel is more of a challenge – to act in a live play where there are no “do-overs” in front of an audience (no matter what goes wrong) or to act in a TV series where storylines are not only shot out of sequence but the same scenes are done multiple times as well?

A: They’re both challenging and they both have different rewards. I prefer the stage because I love the size of it. I love the feeling that I’m shot out of a cannon! I love to journey with the audience and feel that we experience all of those moments together and for the very first time. Therein lies tremendous challenge because even if you’re in a long-running show and have been saying the same lines over and over, the people in those seats are seeing and hearing something that’s brand new to them. What you’re creating is an intimate love story that invites them to get to know your character and witness how that character grows and evolves from start to finish.

In film, you’re shooting a character’s growth and feelings out of order, and it’s a huge challenge to know how it all works out without betraying that knowledge in the flow of nuance and energy the camera is capturing. Really good actors also don’t rely on the fact they can shoot a scene over and over until they get it right. I remember a story about Joanne Woodward where she was shooting a particularly emotional scene and something went wrong that required that entire scene to be reshot. She groaned about having to dig down to her toes and pull up all the energy again to re-deliver this highly-charged, high-voltage piece but that’s just what actors do. She was good, she was brilliant, and she was faithful to her craft.

Let me give you another example about attitude from a brilliant actor. Alan Alda. Alan and I were doing a scene we thought was really good. We finished and looked at each other, cheering about the moment of completion. Except something technical went wrong. We were directed to take the scene over again from the very top. We were so sure it was perfect. Arghghghgh! I couldn’t believe this was happening. Alan nudged me with his elbow and said, “Great! We get another chance to do it even better!” Now that’s a winning attitude I appreciate and I try to apply it to everything I do. You can always, always do it better the next time around.

Q: Actors are often warned against acting with children and animals because they will be ruthlessly upstaged. What, then, was it like for you to be a guest on The Muppet Show?

A: It’s like I died and went to Heaven! Seriously, the creativity was so thick and amazing that you couldn’t help but have a wonderful time. They flew me to London, put me up at the Dorchester, and I got to sing and dance around with a bunch of pieces of fur and felt and have the time of my life. I could rave about them forever.

Q: Favorite play you ever acted in?

A: It’s always whatever play I’m doing at the moment. Isn’t that what every actor says? Well, it’s true. I’m very fickle about that. I have a list of favorite plays, things I’ve loved that I completely adored. There are roles like Shirley Valentine that I went after before I had even closed the script. It’s a remarkable piece of theater written for a woman. I also loved doing Same Time, Next Year. Bernard Slade, in fact, wrote the first film I ever did so he really had me pegged to do the play. I loved the female character in it and, at that time, the play was very current in its notions about marriage and relationships. Too much has happened in our world since then to have the play current now but as a timepiece it’s an absolute jewel.

I also played Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Agnes Gooch in Mame and you couldn’t have had two characters farther apart! I think the more you have to stretch in different roles, the more fun it is for both you and the audience. I enjoyed doing Love Letters and The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss and What I Wore—all fun stuff that was a joy to do and that I’d do all over again. It goes without saying that I loved M*A*S*H, too, because it was like doing a sweet little play every week with writers and actors I adored. It gave me the opportunity to work on a single character for an awfully long time and fortunately I had visionaries as producers who allowed me to continue to grow within that character. It was the first time in television that this actually happened, that Margaret continued to evolve, mindful of reruns and the order in which viewers would be catching the episodes.

Jeff and Loretta

Loretta at a Southern California book-signing with friend and actor Jeff Maxwell (aka Private Igor, the 4077th doofy cook).

Q: Had you seen the film version of M*A*S*H prior to the audition that won you the role of “Hot Lips?”

A: No, and it’s a funny story actually. I was in Hawaii at the time working with Jack Lord on Hawaii 5-0. By the time I came back, a lot of the flap about casting the TV version of M*A*S*H had already died down and I didn’t know they had already seen 200-300 women trying out for the part of Hot Lips. My then-agent called and asked me if I had seen the movie. When I told him I hadn’t, he said, “Great. No problem. Doesn’t matter.” He set up an appointment for me to meet Gene Reynolds, Larry Gelbart and Burt Metcalfe. He told me there wasn’t anything to prepare for or read and that it was just to show up.

My agent, meanwhile, had an offer for me to do a film with Olivia de Havilland which put me in orbit because I had always admired her. Out of courtesy, he called Fox to tell them he had had an offer for me to do a movie and that we were going to go for it if I didn’t get cast in the show because there was a conflict of dates.

Gene Reynolds told him, “Oh, we were just going to call you. We’ve decided to go with Loretta.” Anyway, I’ve been told that our series was closer to the book in terms of characters and episodic and, thus, closer than we ever were to the movie. After I got cast, there wasn’t really any reason for me to watch the film. Now and again I’ll be channel-surfing and catch what looks like the 4077th but it’s not really my M*A*S*H and I keep on going.

Q: In addition to an endearing ensemble cast, top-notch scripts and an artful blend of comedy and drama, M*A*S*H has the distinction of lasting longer on the air than the actual war it was depicting. Well over 30 years after the series finale, it’s still possible to channel-surf on any given day and find it playing in syndication. In your opinion, what accounts for the longevity of the show and its ability to resonate with viewers of all ages (even those too young to have watched it the first time around)?

A: Well, for one thing, the writing was superb and it just kept getting better and better. They also never repeated themselves. They kept coming up with one luscious idea after another and matching some of us together to see what would happen. Next came the extraordinary group of actors who also loved each other. You can always work on friendship and politeness but love is something that’s either there or it isn’t. It happened so deeply that, to this day, it’s the closest family I personally have ever had. We have always been there for each other. On the sad occasions when one of our own has passed away, we mourn them just as we would a flesh and blood family member and cry and hug and share favorite stories. That bond came across very clearly and without working at it in every episode we did. And audiences knew that.

There were also the core values the producers put forth, timeless values that hit people at just the right time and mindset to produce synchronicity. They were ready for a show about peace even though the backdrop of M*A*S*H was about war. Integrity, love, friendship, ambition—M*A*S*H had all of these things. It was about experts—expert doctors and expert nurses—doing their very best under the worst of circumstances. To be able to laugh at their clowning which was a relief for them and at the same time get a lump in the throat when things went wrong—it was a beautiful balance. Families could watch this show together because they trusted us and they trusted the writers to deliver something that was real, that was authentic and that reinforced the message we are all human.

Because we were on the air for so long, the children in those families grew up, got married, had children of their own and yet M*A*S*H is still a family thing. Our fan mail always reflected that. Little girls, for instance, who grew up to become nurses after the years of watching me play-act. For all intents and purposes, M*A*S*H was a sitcom—and I hate that word—but it was so much more. It was a slice of life and its own category that audiences trusted because everyone involved was giving their heart and soul.

It’s also funny that occasionally when I’m channel-surfing and I come across an episode, it instantly seduces me. I can sit there and recall in amazing clarity everything we were doing that day—whether I was needlepointing a pillow or Alan was playing chess with Mike. Sometimes I’ll even call my fellow actors and say, “Wow! Guess what I’m watching! Was this a great episode or what?” It’s almost like I’m seeing everything again for the first time and appreciating it even more.

Q: When actors play a particular role on TV for a long time, they can become so closely identified with their fictional personas that it can be challenging for audiences to accept them as anyone else. As the iconic “Hot Lips,” for instance, you were starring on Broadway in Same Time, Next Year at the same time M*A*S*H was on the air. Did you ever get a sense that the audience was murmuring, “Does Frank know about this?”

A: Never. Ever. Ever. And I can point to several reviews that support that. I remember one in particular—and I have to mention I was never someone caught up in reviews of my work—where a gentleman came up after a performance of Shirley Valentine and said, “I understand you don’t always read reviews. Well, I’d like you to read this one.” And it began, “If you’re headed to the theater in the hopes of seeing Margaret Hot Lips Houlihan, you’ll be disappointed in that way but joyous in being riveted for two hours and fifteen minutes by an actor on stage bringing so many different characters to life.” He took exception to people liking to come to the theater to see a television icon, but this goes back to my own relationship with the audience. If I believe in the character I’m playing, an audience will be swept along and believe it, too. If I do my best, the audience will respond to it.

Q: Speaking of painting, let’s talk about the gorgeous animals that fill the pages of your new book.

A: Yes, let’s. Enough about me. Let’s talk about them.

Q: Since furry and feathered subjects can’t sit still for a studio portrait like their human counterparts, tell us a little about the process you go through to capture their essence.

A: It’s a number of things, actually. It’s memory, it’s imagination. It’s doing a sketch of something I’ve seen, as well as working from photographs. Sometimes I’ll start a new project based on friends’ snapshots of their pets. Other times, I’ll draw inspiration from a picture in a calendar. Every painting in the book is accompanied by short stories about what inspired them.

The cover of the book, for instance, is my painting of a Jack Russell. He was a rescue pup from BIDE-A-WEE, which is the oldest animal rescue organization in Manhattan. I just can’t say enough good things about the remarkable work they do. Anyway, I was the recipient of five lovely little “mistakes” by two uneducated youngsters who knew nothing about spaying and neutering. Believe me, they know now! I took them to BIDE-A-WEE and they were fantastic in terms of giving them their shots, socializing them, and happily, placing them in forever homes. They scrutinize every adoption request thoroughly. In fact, it’s probably harder to adopt a dog from BIDE-A-WEE than it is to adopt a child from Russia.

Q: I’m assuming you had beloved pets when you were growing up?

A: I did indeed. My first little dog was named Cheetah. Seriously. Today I share my home with my little Yorkie and two 15-year-old cats. I was told the latter were littermates. My vet thought this was hilarious and said there was no way that cat parents could have produced a Siamese and a black and white tuxedo. I call Nubie—the black and white—my Velcro cat because he attaches himself to me and likes to just hang there while I walk around.

Q: Your love for animals and your passion to advocate for them go hand in hand. In general, how are we progressing in the fight to stop animal abuse, and if you could change any one aspect of this issue, what would it be?

A: First thing on the agenda would be to erase every single puppy and kitten mill off the map. It’s as disgusting as a bloodsport and a boil on the complexion of our society that we continue to allow these places to exist. Whenever we hear about one, we shut them down. Just as quickly, though, they pop up somewhere else. I have a friend who adopted a Yorkie that had been in a puppy mill. For the first couple of years, this poor little thing kept walking around in circles. They realized she was walking the perimeter of the cage she had grown up in through her whole ordeal as a baby machine. It’s a horror and the conditions are even more horrible.

Laws also need to be more stringent on what’s done with the “discards” from breeders, the dogs that don’t meet all of the standards to be show quality. This also goes along with the elimination of “backyard breeding”—another horrible and sad practice. Professional breeders have to pay a license to breed dogs but, of course, this doesn’t stop people from doing this in their basement and trying to make a profit from excessive inbreeding.

We need to step up in terms of educating people about the important of spaying and neutering. On top of that, if we can’t reach people on a compassionate level, it’s also costing tax-dollars every time an animal has to be euthanized. Multiply that by the millions of animals we put to death every year. We also need to ban the practice of selling dogs and cats at pet stores, many of which have come from mills. There’s no vetting of strangers who come in off the street and want to buy a live animal from a shop at the mall. Will those owners be responsible or will those “purchases” end up dead through no fault of their own?

Q: Tell me about the concept behind SwitHeart Animal Alliance and how your partnership with Mies Hora came about.

A: I absolutely adore Mies, mostly because he never disagrees with me! He’s a brilliant designer and editor and publisher and we couldn’t be prouder of this book. Funny story—Mies is Czech but for some reason I always assumed he was Dutch. Through the course of getting the book out there, I introduced him as Dutch. Well, he let me do it a few times and finally one day he said, “You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m actually Czech.” Down the road we were working on some marketing ideas and very mildly arguing about whose idea was better. “As a joke, I said, ‘you know, I think I really liked you better when you were Dutch!’ and we laughed and everything was fine from there. It has become our running gag and whenever we hit a roadblock, I tell him that I wish he was Dutch.

As for how it began, we met on a private plane on the way to Florida where I was receiving the Red Cross Humanitarian Award. I had my iPad out and he happened to notice some of my paintings. He asked if he could see it. He really loved them, we got to talking and everything just sprouted from there. The whole process took about a year—to me, it really doesn’t seem that long—but every bit of it was exciting in picking, choosing, writing, and defining what we wanted this book to say. Work is in progress on a second edition and—like the first one—proceeds from sales will go to give a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves.”

An Artpreneur’s Guide to Pigging Out: Storing Some Fat to Survive the Famine Before Your Feast

Melissa Matthews

“Every child is an artist,” wrote Pablo Picasso. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Much too often, the demands of making a living take precedence over the joys of making a statement and affecting social change through the creation of original artworks. When we mistakenly embrace a mindset that everything we do must be tied to compensation, there’s a tendency to become risk-averse, especially in a shaky economy.

In her new book, An Artpreneur’s Guide to Pigging Out: Storing Some Fat to Survive the Famine Before Your Feast, author Melissa A. Matthews shares savvy advice on how to feed your muse, keep your bills paid, and turn your current struggles for recognition into a journey of personal empowerment.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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 Q: Let’s start with some background on your journey to becoming a full-time artist and art consultant. Who or what, for instance, was the strongest influence on your decision to pursue your creative path?

A:  It wasn’t a cognizant decision. Discovering art in high school introduced me to a catharsis, I am not willing to give up.  Every decision after that has kept me on this path.

Q: What would you identify as your biggest “break-in” moment?

A:  I suppose my break-in moment as an artist came in January 2008. I was invited to be one of three artists exhibiting at a private show at the home of a former NBA player in Trenton, NJ. After, four years of university and working three plus jobs at any given time as a fulltime student studying painting which my mother so eloquently described as “aspiring to poverty,” I sold eight of the sixteen paintings I exhibited and walked away with roughly $6,000 in cash.  It wasn’t the first time, I had sold work but it was the largest volume of work at one time and the only time my mother was able to witness firsthand that I could make a living at this “art thing”. It was an “aha” moment for her that has served our relationship well as she is now one of my biggest supporters.  As a professional and a daughter, there is just nothing more validating than to make believers of your family.

Q:  “Art as a Lifestyle” is a wonderful tagline for your online shop, Mamltdart. How are you living this dream yourself in straddling two environments as culturally diverse as Washington, D.C. and Trinidad/Tobago?

A: Well, having owned and operated MAMLTDART for just about nine years, (most of that time utilizing it as a part time income stream) I made a conscious decision in early 2012 to commit myself fully to the growth and development of my brand. This meant making a few sacrifices. I gave up my apartment in Cheverly, MD, sold as many of my earthly possessions as possible, booked a flight to Trinidad and embarked on a journey of embracing two sides of myself. I have always straddled these cultural environments being a first generation American whose family is inextricably tied to their home country. Trinidad has been ingrained in me as long as I have known myself and I touched its soil just six months after being born for the first time.

Most of my art practice revolves around this twoness of being an American that isn’t so American and a Trinidadian that isn’t so Trinidadian. Therefore, shuttling between the two, physically is perhaps the most natural part of my journey as an artist. I couch surf in both countries; to keep costs down and ensure all my energy and money feed my business and develop my brand. I have managed to pull together a small support team that assists me in setting up exhibitions, staying current with my client base and developing new products and brand strategy. When I don’t have supplies, I work digitally on my small netbook computer. In the last year, I have created in excess of 150 pieces of art. I am constantly entrenched in creating, blogging, and engaging around art wherever I am. Art is my lifestyle.

Q: What are some ways that creative types can affect social change in today’s world while they’re caught up in just trying to keep a roof over their heads and staying a step ahead of their creditors?

A:. Social change is affected when people channel their passions in the direction of achieving common good. I started my career in the NGO/ Nonprofit sector, helping NGOs hone their branding and community outreach. As a consultant, I do project development and arts administration planning for arts based nonprofits. Every industry needs creative people; from graphic design to marketing to product, brand, and project development- creativity is a commodity Another way, creative people affect change is by being provocateurs, questioning the why, where, and how of the society they live in through whatever medium they are working in.

Q: Define the difference between “wants” and “needs” and why entrepreneurs oftentimes make the wrong choice on which to focus their time and energy.

A: Wants are those things that would make our lives easier— a ritzy apartment, a new instead of a used car, eating out, a $500 handbag and/or pair of shoes, a fancy studio. When in fact most people have the capacity to live and operate on much less than they think. Needs are those things that are NECESSARY for us to subsist and keep working –a roof over your head, something that takes you from point A to point B (feet do count), food with some nutritional value, any bag that holds your stuff and a place to work (Starbucks will do). Oftentimes people make the “wrong” or more extravagant choice because they don’t know any better. No one has told them that their work product is not a reflection of where it is created but of their knowledge and skillsets that could be aptly applied in any environment. When you focus on what you don’t have, you will always be in a state of lacking— your work will never be good enough because you don’t believe that your tools are good enough. Entrepreneurship is the choice between perfection and the idea of being perfectly imperfect. Successful entrepreneurs realize that the latter sets them apart in business.

Q: The concept of barter has become a viable currency in our downward spiraling economy. What are some venues outside of the artistic community where the implementation of bartering would be effective in managing costs and resources?

A: Bartering can be applied in almost in any situation. A good example of this would be food co-ops, giving a bit of your time for freshly grown and harvested produce.  There are also cooperative workspaces wherein people lower the overhead costs by dividing the maintenance work amongst them and practice conservation techniques to keep energy costs low. The possibilities are really there for bartering and cost conservation in every field if you look close enough.

Q: Arts programs are typically the first things to be cut in school programs. In your view, how does this diminish us as a society and what can be done to reverse the trend and make art more accessible to future generations?

A: Art teaches a new way of seeing, examining the world around you, and relating to or empathizing with it.  We are developing a generation of people that will lack the ability to think outside of the box. As a result, their problem solving capabilities, ability to conceptualize new and innovative ways of moving forward, and empathy will be lacking. This will leave us starved for new products, processes and perhaps most disheartening— leaders.  Remedying this situation is as simple as outlining the role of art within other fields and making a concerted effort to teach arts integrated education. This will make for well-rounded individuals that can more easily understand the role of the arts, creativity, critical and imaginative thinking within a number of realms.

Q: Has 21st century technology made it more – or less – hospitable for individuals to become entrepreneurs?

A: I would say easier. Sitting within the confines of your own home, you can develop and run a web-based business be it ecommerce, counseling, a processing service, the possibilities are endless.

Q: If a young person came to you and said, “I want to quit school and become an artist but my parents want me to go to college and get a ‘practical’ degree,” what would your advice be and why?

A:  I would first question why he/she felt that art was a field that denoted quitting school and encourage them to do their research. Tell them that any field worth being apart of is worth studying for. I would have them outline a plan for where and how they saw their art career evolving including education and post education plans as well as market research for the expansive ways in order to succeed with an art background. I would then have them present said plan to their parents. Parents are often worried about stability and once you can prove a solid career or financial stability is an achievable their worry is quelled.

Q: What do you feel are some of the common attributes of successful entrepreneurs?

A: Determination ( a “go get it” attitude), creativity, and failure— the ability to embrace failure as lessons learned and stay in pursuit of the ultimate goal.

Q: Tell us about what inspired you to write An Artpreneur’s Guide to Pigging Out: Storing Some Fat to Survive the Famine Before Your Feast.

A: I have been blogging for years. Sort of documenting my journey as a creative professional, and I started getting little notes from artists and non-artists alike telling me, that my posts were helpful to them. One day after going through quite a few blog posts, I had an epiphany, why not write a book for other people like me— artists, entrepreneurs, and people beating their own path. I’d read and absolutely love some great business books but none of them fit squarely in my box. I wanted to give people a realistic but still encouraging look on how to survive entrepreneurship, creativity as business and the like.

Q: Did you work from a formal outline or just let the thoughts flow freely?

A: I had a basic outline, taking a cue from the formatting I used in my blog but I basically free wrote the entire book over a day (it’s a short read) and then spent the next few weeks refining it.

Q: Who is your target demographic and what do you feel is the book’s primary takeaway value?

A:  Entrepreneurs, artists, recent graduates, and the confused: people who aren’t quite sure what they want to do but are perhaps sure that conventional job paths may not be their thing.

Q: Self-publishing is a popular trend these days but also requires that authors don multiple hats to successfully see a project through to completion. Why did you take this particular route and what do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

A: I took this path because as proven by my life, I enjoy a challenge. The thing I know now that I didn’t know as the beginning is that Epub formatting is an exercise in sadomasochism (just the most excruciatingly annoying process ever).

Q: If a movie were made of your life, who should play you and why?

A: That’s a tough one. Perhaps Quvenzhané Wallis when she gets a bit older. I absolutely adored her in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Q: In your own words, what is “failure” and how do people rise above it?

A: Failure is finding a way that won’t work. Rising above it is dusting yourself off and finding a way that will work.

Q: A sense of humor is critical in life as well as in business. How has your own sense of humor served you effectively as a professional?

A: I try not to take my work or myself too seriously. Most of my gaffs and failures are well documented in my art. I’ve literally sold them.

Q: What is the most surprising thing that your readers and followers don’t know about you?

A: It’s a toss up between the fact that I’m 4’9/ 89lbs and I’m a twin.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I have an exhibition opening in Maryland this June, continuing to produce the monthly illustrative zine, Overdrawn and I am writing the second installment of An Artpreneur’s Guide to Pigging Out this fall.

Q: Where can people learn more about you and your work?

A: You can find all my new work, musings on career and life on my blog mamltdart.tumblr.com and links to all my projects on mam-ltd-art.com.