The creative process is mysterious. For me, it often consists of accumulation/distillation/accumulation, sifting ideas through different iterations and genres (art, poetry, performance). Micro-expressions of a central idea frequently become distinct projects and parts of a larger constellation of work. Along the way, much is gained, but also, sometimes, lost.
There are two stanzas from an early draft of Still, the Sky that aren’t found in the published work; although, traces of them remain. They were composed of an image that volunteered itself, left its mark, and vanished:
After the first of seven was plucked for the
Feast, the others would set up camp
Around the twists and turns of the pathways,
And they would plot to meet and spoil themselves,
To love the murder away, but they were kept
Apart, running from the gaze of the creature
Whose shadow you cast.
They would meet us from time to time,
Casual encounters, sometimes taking the time
To say what they thought, or how they felt,
What their days had been.
One even found a pet, an orange kitten
Who would disappear for days and then follow
As we made rounds, both intimate and mundane;
She would outlive him.
The first two stanzas remain. The second two are gone, all that mentioned the unnamed victim and the kitten that survived.
Still, the Sky is the result of a long process of iterative works over the past few years, different expressions of the characters, themes, and ideas which had their genesis during a theater residency/fellowship in the spring of 2019 with the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy.
Before I arrived to the residency, I received a commission from La Jolla Playhouse in California to create a site-specific work for their biennial Without Walls Festival, and so I already knew I would be working with themes of sky and sea, flight and nautical culture. My site in San Diego was a desert labyrinth just beyond the tarmac of the San Diego airport (beneath the flight path, divided by a narrow waterway) and on the grounds of Liberty Station, a formal naval training base.
I also brought to the residency outtakes from The Sandpiper’s Spell (my first published volume) as another set of ideas. Most of the writings were coming-of-age themed or more recent explorations that didn’t have anywhere to go yet. In the first few weeks, I wrote something to bind them structurally and then put them aside for later—but as I began to storyboard ideas for the commission, filling up the walls with my Post-It Notes and columns of associations, I started to see a mythology unfolding through archetypes that would benefit from the specificity of personal experience.
The next series of developments happened over summer, in New York, where I worked with performers. We experimented with choreography, film, and art to find the characters and describe the textures and themes, all in an exhibition at the Ace Hotel New York gallery. Then in October, we premiered the site-specific Ikaros in San Diego. After that, I continued to experiment with performance and material culture, mixing these with virtual reality. These explorations took me into early 2020 as I worked with students and faculty at the Olin College of Engineering where I was in-residence.
But then the pandemic hit, and we were sent into lock down. At that time, I circled back to revise the manuscript further, adding the artwork to the pages. At this stage, the three-dimensionality of the world revealed itself. The many previous micro-expressions of the project had rendered complex characters and rich environments—and reflecting upon the spaces in which I had worked, other elements emerged—for instance, the seagulls in Italy, nesting in the cliffs below my studio. Their mating rituals and fierce protection of their nests, their daily patterns, and the endlessness of sky and sea became dominant images of the main plot. And, in San Diego, an orange kitten also left her mark, shaping the timbre of a subplot.
Throughout the grounds of Liberty Station in San Diego, there was a population who made residence, whether temporarily passing through or on a more semi-permanent basis, in tents or lean-tos. As we were making Ikaros, we were careful not to displace, to be mindful, respectful, and in communication with the denizens of the space. Early on, one of the park residents came through rehearsals to chat with us about the work, the mythology, his observations of us in the site. He carried an orange kitten with him. Later, the kitten would come to rehearsals on her own and sometimes participate.
There was a particular section with a long spindle of fabric which was unfurled to make the footprint of a labyrinth, and the kitten would stand threateningly at the edge of the rosemary bushes watching this giant ball of string, little shivers rippling along her spine—adding another layer of drama.
We began to expect her. She started to show up consistently to rehearsals, but by the time we got to performance, she had gone elsewhere, only later to appear in another scene she’d never rehearsed, under full lights and in front of a paying audience.
We rolled with it, but she stole the scene. She even got some social media coverage.
When the performances were finished, I went back to the poetry, and I took her image with me, writing her into the manuscript. In fact, I took the whole of the experience, the denizens of the space, the rosemary, the sounds, the smells, textures, animals, insects, birds, weather, and flight patterns all into consideration. The specificities of the lived experience were folded into the creative mix to further shape the world of the book.
By the time I arrived at a final draft, the overt mention of the kitten was gone, but her paw prints were all over it in subtle and invisible ways within the text and artwork (“a predator moving in right cycles, leaving us unharmed… treachery in the tall grass…”).
Reflecting later on The Sandpiper’s Spell, I realized the image of a pet outliving a companion was already a seed planted in the poem “Day Dreams.” The idea had carried forward, woven itself into the new work, then out again. Perhaps it will return and make more of itself in whatever I create next.
I have begun to meditate on what these little threads mean over time, how a body of work forms from the scraps of previous work, how material moves forward and themes reiterate, or ideas sift and fold back together again to create specificity. It becomes a pattern for world building, one iteration at a time. It makes the work larger through the micro-expressions along the way—allowing for volunteer images that might invisibly imprint upon the eventual narrative.
Little paw prints.
About the Author
Tom Pearson is an artist and poet who works in dance, theater, film, visual art, and multi-media. He is known for his original works for theater, including the long-running, off-Broadway immersive hits THEN SHE FELL and THE GRAND PARADISE and as a founder and co-artistic director of the New York City-based Third Rail Projects and Global Performance Studio.
He is the author of two books, THE SANDPIPER’S SPELL and STILL, THE SKY. More information available at his website and on social media at: tompearsonnyc.com and @tompearsonnyc.