Works in Progress

Four artists share their fall works—and their ever-evolving creative process.

Surround Sound

There are only two kinds of music, says Colin Thurmond: Good and bad. So to compose his own work, he immerses himself in all styles, from the recordings of Ray Charles and Bach that first inspired him in childhood to modern electronic dance music. His South End studio’s arsenal of tools includes his primary instrument, the guitar, in all its forms—acoustic, electric, flamenco and beyond—alongside a laptop and DJ decks for mixing thumping beats. And though Thurmond tours the world for classical engagements, produces commissions for professional orchestras and is pursuing a doctorate at New England Conservatory, he’s as at home in the nightclub as he is at the symphony. As director of music for Touch Performance Art, a company in residency at the American Repertory Theater, Thurmond designs immersive experiences that synthesize music, sound and live showmanship. Its signature show, returning to Oberon this fall, is AcousticaElectronica, a fourth wall-shattering spectacle that is equal parts circus, rave and dubstep-remixed opera. Traditional? No. But it’s all good.

On when inspiration strikes: “On my own, I’m typically a morning person. I love getting things done first thing, when the sun is coming up and it’s still very quiet. But with other artists, there’s a special process that happens when you’re burning the midnight oil.”

On his creative rituals: “At first I restrain myself from writing and commit to weeks of research on source material. AcousticaElectronica draws on Carmen, Swan Lake, The Picture of Dorian Gray and commedia dell’arte. I read as many books, listen to as much music and gather as much information as I can. You have to know the parts of something really well to deconstruct and reconstruct in an honest way.”

On why you shouldn’t sneer at EDM: “I think there’s a lack of understanding of the craft. You may spend hours on an instrument of wood and string, but others spend as many hours producing layers of music on a machine. It’s the same process, the creation of sound, whatever the medium.”

Dancing About Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Space is the breath of art.” With each turn, leap and exhalation, choreographer Betsi Graves agrees. She is entranced by cityscapes: the graceful reach of towering buildings, the geometric structure of the streets and the barely perceptible movements that happen on the subway as we everyday dancers move in and around the space of others in transit. Such observations inspired her to found Urbanity Dance, now Boston’s second largest professional dance company, which is bringing contemporary work offstage and into the city: An October “Dance Crawl” will invite audiences to trail performers through a series of venues. Urbanity flirts with experimental territory, as in a November performance with “self-conducted orchestra” A Far Cry, a partly improvised piece in which Graves’ dancers will anticipate and respond to the music. And this fall, the company will also be settling into a new home: a much larger South End studio with additional space for offices and community classes—and more room to breathe.

On thinking outside the box: “There’s a part of this world that is bored by proscenium-style shows, and that really wants to feel engaged and interactive. We have people who won’t miss Urbanity shows like they won’t miss a Red Sox game. People need to support the arts, but the arts need to keep up.”

On the urban muse: “Because I grew up in such a rural place [Plainville, Kansas], when I saw a big city for the first time I was enamored. I had sparkly-eyes. There’s magic to the city, to people living and moving in close quarters. There’s chaos. Inspiration comes from being part of that.”

On the first steps to choreography: “Last year I was watching a man move on the T, the way he was passing his foot without even noticing it, and how that motion created a symphony of other movements. I took pen to paper, started writing things down. I made a couple sketches and listened to certain songs. I talked to other dancers about it. The challenge is in not straying too far from the original intention.”

Class Artist

This fall, Shinique Smith is having a homecoming. Sure, the internationally exhibited artist was raised in Maryland and is based in upstate New York. But she clocked classroom time in Boston, receiving her masters in teaching from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She even instructed at the Boston Arts Academy—ironic considering that Smith was, by her own admission, a sometimes dodgy young student. She was asked to leave the Baltimore School for the Arts after cutting class for two months, but she also got an artistic education from street corner punks and graffiti artist friends in the 1980s. Those influences are obvious in Shinique Smith: Bright Matter, her just-opened MFA exhibit of 30 colorful and calligraphic mixed-media paintings, found-object sculptures, videos and installations that celebrate the exuberance of youth and acknowledge its bittersweet passing. This month, she also unveils Seven Moon Junction, a massive mural in Dewey Square, presented in a partnership between the MFA and the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. Inspired by her 2013 painting Seven Moons, it will be on view for a year on one of Boston’s biggest canvases.

On her home studio, a Catskills barn: “When you’re a kid, you have these moments of pure joy and harmony. You find yourself alone marveling at light or simple things. Moving to the country, I’ve found that again. I feel more centered, more focused.”

On playing music and movies while she works: “I go through phases. I’ll go from rap music to opera, from ’80s movies like Beat Street and Purple Rain to costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility and Marilyn Monroe films. Things that are so known that I don’t have to pay attention to them.”

On how teaching impacts her creative process: “I can’t be a hypocrite, so I apply my critiques to my own practice and work ethic. I also give and follow advice I learned from one of my own teachers: Give yourself permission to follow the inspiration, and remember you have to destroy in order to create.”

The Spacing of Words

For author Jennifer Haigh, each day follows a familiar plot. She’s an early riser and a tenacious worker, arriving at her Roslindale studio by 6 am and writing until the words run dry. She says she has a Pavlovian response to this space, its size, its smell; it triggers inspiration. However she works, it’s working: News from Heaven, a recent collection of interconnected short stories, won her a 2014 Massachusetts Book Award and a 2014 PEN New England Award for fiction. And “Sublimation,” a short story about aging, existential crises and gender nonconformity, is being distributed around town for the October Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story initiative. Now she’s working on her fifth novel and finding inspiration in an unlikely place: a vintage Mouse Trap board game. Haigh says it reminds her of constructing a novel, an act that requires every element to be in its perfect place.

On her anatomical studies: “I spend a lot of time ripping apart novels in a mechanistic way. What is the pacing between chapters? How does the point of view change? The only problem with writing novels is that you almost lose the pleasure of reading them because you’re always looking at the engineering.”

On the mousetrap as metaphor: “A novel is the most elaborate lie, told in order to get to a truth. The Mouse Trap game is this elaborate thing designed to do something very simple. There’s so much architecture and infrastructure. And a novel is a machine. To succeed, each part must work properly.”

On rewriting: “I don’t like writing; I like rewriting. Revisions are the only part I enjoy. The first draft is pure misery. It’s painful and embarrassing to be confronted with the mediocrity of what you’re producing. Once the first draft is satisfactory, I can relax and enjoy the process.”

On writing short and long: “Writing a short story is like dating. A novel is like a long, bad marriage. But I’m monogamous in that marriage. When I’m writing a novel I can’t even look at another. I’ll do nothing else but write this damn novel, every day, until it’s over.”

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