Archive for ‘writer’

Sharmon Hilfinger

Tuesday, August 1st, 2023

A Conversation between Bay Area playwright Sharmon Hilfinger and Katherine Bazak

As I sit across the table talking with Sharmon Hilfinger, I see the embodiment of two different women who are elegant, gracious, and intelligent. One is a wife, a mother, a musician; the other is an artist/writer committed to portraying her view of life and the world around her. As a playwright, she has chosen the theater to tell her truths under the guise of entertainment.

Theater is a tough art form to navigate. One must try to get their play off the page and onto the stage. It is impressive to meet someone with Sharmon’s track record. Her produced plays include three dramas and nine ensemble plays with music in collaboration with composer Joan McMillen. These have been produced by San Francisco Bay Area theatre companies, including The Pear Theatre, TheatreFIRST, Inferno Theatre, Menlo Player’s Guild, BootStrap Theater Foundation, as well as Heartland Theatre Company in Illinois. In 1998, she founded BootStrap Theater Foundation which develops and produces original plays by Bay Area playwrights.  

Sharmon Hilfinger in her office. Photo: Katherine Bazak
Sharmon Hilfinger in her office. Photo: Katherine Bazak

Katherine: Let’s start at the beginning. I know that I saw An Ideal Mother some time in the early 90s. Was that your first play?

Sharmon: Well it was’t the first play I’d written, but it was the first play of mine that was produced. I read somewhere that The Menlo Players, at Burgess Park Theater in Menlo Park, was asking for scripts, so I sent it in. The director, Dean Burgee, called me immediately and it was produced in 1992. Beginner’s luck!

Katherine: Had you written anything before 1992? 

Sharmon: I had been writing for a long time. I’m not quite sure how to say this—writing was my consolation prize for failure. I was an actor and I was admitted to the Conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon. It was, and still is, a University degree structured as a conservatory program, very unusual at that time. It was heaven! Theater classes all day, crewing shows at night—24/7 theater. It wasn’t easy to get in, and it wasn’t easy to stay in. They had a policy of accepting a certain number of students and cutting 10% of the class after the first year. It was very rigorous and class attendance was mandatory. I was there in 1970 when the Kent State Vietnam War protest killings happened. I cut classes to march on Washington D.C., which did not help my standing in the department. I’m sure there were other reasons (I was not given any kind of performance review) for why I was cut from the program. 

That was traumatic! I was devastated. I came home and finished up my BFA in Drama at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois (my hometown). IWU is one of those gems of a good liberal arts college and had a very strong drama department. I grew up getting my theater education there because I went to all the plays they put on—the Head of the Drama Department was surprisingly avant-garde. I finished my BFA in drama, but I had it in my head that I couldn’t expect to pursue a professional career in acting, I was a failure, this profession was not for me. So I gave up theater! My creativity had to go somewhere, and I started writing instead. I wrote a novel, and a number of short stories over the following years. Whatever my day job was, I would get up at six in the morning and write before I went to work. First thing in the morning is still the best time for me to write. 

Katherine: You left theater and started writing, but you didn’t write plays.

Sharmon: That’s how deeply “being cut” wounded me. Theater rejected me, so I rejected it. 

Katherine: So when did you start writing plays?

Sharmon: When my first child, Paz (also a playwright!), was about six months old, I was marveling at how much I loved this new person in my life. I had a lot of ambivalence about being a mother, so all these positive love endorphins were a surprise to me. Somehow, they unlocked the bolt I had secured to bar theater from my life. Suddenly, one day (I remember it very clearly), I said, “But I love theater! Why did I give it up?” 

I had an infant, being an actor means spending your nights at the theater, I hadn’t acted for 15 years. I couldn’t see myself auditioning for parts, but I realized that I could write a play. And why hadn’t I thought of that sooner!?

I wrote a one act play and six months later I had a reading of it at the Palo Alto Play Reading Series run by Jeannie Barroga. Like the contact with Dean Burgee at Menlo Player’s Guild, Jeannie was local and the response was very quick. It was a good time to start writing plays in Palo Alto.

Tell It Slant CD cover image

Katherine: Did you go back to school and take some writing courses? Best advice you were given about writing? 

Sharmon: I took playwriting classes at San Francisco State and I got involved at the, now defunct, Eureka Theater in San Francisco. I took a workshop with Oskar Eustis, who was the co-artistic director with Tony Tacconi at the Eureka and they were in the process of producing Kushner’s Angels In America. That is where I met Ellen McLaughlin, a playwright/ actress who was the original Angel in Angels In America.

I took a playwriting class from her at the Eureka Theatre in the winter of 1990. It started out with a big group and as the weeks went on, there were fewer and fewer people, because Ellen had a very special style of teaching. I would call it beguiling! Instead of offering a bunch of techniques on how to write a play, she focused on the writing process.

The class whittled down to a small number of us who really wanted this and felt, yeah, this was nourishing to us. When it finished, we kept meeting once a week at one of the writer’s home in San Francisco. Ellen continued to meet with us, but she soon moved to New York. However, she stayed in touch with us and always joined us when she was in town. The group stayed together for years. It was all process-oriented. One of us would give a prompt, and we would all sit and write for 45 minutes and then read what we’d written. We could also bring in things that we were working on and share those as well.

That was the best writing group I ever had! I have remained in touch with Ellen; she has often read drafts of my work and discussed them with me.

Katherine: What is one of the most difficult things about writing plays? Ideas first or characters first? Do you map it all out in the beginning or do you write many drafts? 

Sharmon: I’m a firm believer that everybody creates in their own way, a way that works for them. You know people have often given me books on how to write and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I don’t really want them. 

Katherine: Do you feel that craft is important? 

Sharmon: Yes! Craft is important, and you must have an understanding of dramatic structures. I had excellent teachers in the classes and workshops that I took, where I learned the fundamentals, but I regret that I didn’t have a more rigorous education as a playwright. 

Katherine: Are you self taught? Would you say that most of your learning came from group readings and feedback, but also, maybe, from just reading plays and going to plays?

Sharmon: I’ve been involved in theater all my life. I acted as a child and by the time I was in high school, I was very serious about it. I was going to theater, reading plays, acting and directing. I learned by doing theater, I learned from the classes I took, and I continued to learn as I worked with directors on productions.

Sharmon Hilfinger watches Michael Sommers and Caitlyn Louchard in rehearsal of Tell it Slant at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View, California, 2009. Photo: Veronica Weber
Sharmon Hilfinger watches Michael Sommers and Caitlyn Louchard in rehearsal of Tell it Slant at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View, California, 2009. Photo: Veronica Weber

Katherine: I know you’ve written a novel because I remember reading it. 

Sharmon: Oh yes, I have written two novels and the thing I’m writing now is probably a novel. It’s a very different kind of writing. 

Katherine: Which one do you prefer? 

Sharmon: I prefer the stage, probably because that’s what I’ve done the most. But also, because I do love the theater. When I’m writing a play, I’m always (in my head) in the theater. I’m seeing the characters on stage, I’m imagining how I want it to be. Sometimes, I am writing a character with a particular actor in mind, and that helps me create the part. It’s fun!

Writing a novel is much more about creating interior spaces. You’re describing the inner workings of your characters, you’re describing the room they’re in, or the landscape, and all of that description creates the mood. In drama, it’s the character’s actions/interactions that create the mood, along with all the work of the designers—the directing, the set, the costumes, the lighting. The playwright builds the motor for the play, but it’s the collaboration of all the theater artists that create the finished car “for the run.”

Katherine: It seems that language is a difficult medium to work in. If you have to create language for the actor, to create the meaning, the dialogue is really important, how do you write that dialogue? Do you keep a scrapbook a of conversations? 

Sharmon: No, I don’t. But a lot of people do.

Katherine: How do you make it sound natural? So it doesn’t sound simple or cliché? Do you put yourself into the characters’ role so in essence you’re playing all the characters? 

Sharmon: Yes, absolutely.

Katherine: Many Sharmons out there on stage! Really?

Sharmon: The trick is to fit the language to the character. For example, when I was writing the play about Emily Dickinson, there were a number of direct quotes from Dickinson in the dialogue. So, I had to make sure that the lines that I wrote for her matched her particular diction. Tricky!

Another time I was highly aware of speech patterns was when I was writing Arctic Requiem. I had been to Alaska to spend time with the Inupiat people, four of whom became characters in the play, and I wanted to replicate their speech patterns. 

Katherine: How do you choose the topics for your plays?

Sharmon: The plays that I have done fall into two categories: feminist issues and environmental issues. 

An Ideal Mother was about a young woman who had been adopted and she was searching for her biological mother. She is an actor in a play (Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan), and she wants to believe that the older woman playing Lady Windermere could be her mother, her ideal mother. Keep in mind that I wrote this play just after my second child was born. Clearly, I was working out what kind of mother I wanted to be.

A History of Things That Never Happened was a romp through great literary heroines: Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, and Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady. The main character, Elaine, fantasizes scenes for each of these heroines in which they make one small change in their action at a critical moment, thus transforming them into empowered, rather than tragic, women. Elaine does this as she is reviewing her own history of relationships with men. A review of “things that never happened.”

The next play I wrote was my first collaboration with composer Joan McMillen. We met in Judith Komoroske’s Dance Studio in Menlo Park. Joan improvised on the piano for Judith’s dance classes and I was very fortunate to be in the adult class. 

I asked Joan if I could try improvising on the violin with her on the piano, and she was game. We had a wonderful time making up music together, and soon we were talking about making a play together. Joan loved the story of the Imaginal Disks that are the cells in caterpillars that carry the instructions for the butterfly. Imaginal Disks became the name of the play. We wrote it as a coming-of-age story about a young girl, Franny, who is very imaginative, but not very good at school. Her father works for a company (not specified, but think Monsanto) that is genetically modifying corn to make it more productive and, in his words, “help save the world.” He is a single parent, and he would like to be able to modify/manipulate Franny’s behavior to make her more productive at school. Franny adores her father, but then she learns from her science teacher that the corn he is creating is killing the monarch butterflies. As Franny comes out of her pre-pubescent cocoon, she questions her father’s work and forces him to see the world in a different light. 

This play followed a fairly traditional Musical Theater format, with songs interspersed with dialogue. I wrote the lyrics for the songs and Joan composed. She accompanied in the performances with cellist Moses Sedler and percussionist Judy Kasle.

Joan and I wanted to keep working together and we were approached by Bear Capron, who was the drama teacher at Castilleja School in Palo Alto. With Bear, we created a summer improv workshop for high schoolers in which the improvisations were all about environmental issues. After the summer workshop, Joan and I took material and created got water? The play takes place in a high school during a time of severe water shortage. The students are issued water canteens and have to line up for their allotment. There are those who follow the rules, and those who take advantage, and there is the corporation that comes in to take over the water supply and sell the rationed water. That’s when the students mobilize in protest.

The cast was made up of teens from local high schools and we took it up to the San Francisco Fringe Festival. We also gave two performances open to the public at Castilleja. 

Katherine: What came next?

Production image for the play, Deuce, at the Pear Theatre

Sharmon: I had a production of Deuce at The Pear Theatre. This is a three-person drama, again dealing with feminist issues. The main character, Reddy, is a forty-year old academic who takes a sabbatical to write about her former professor who has died. She had a secretive love affair with him when she was his student. She arranges to do research in the professor’s writing studio with all of his papers, but arrives to find that his son is now living there. The son’s presence complicates everything. He’s protective of his territory, of his father’s legacy, and he’s very attractive. Reddy repeats the “older-wiser-lover” with the younger initiate, this time reversing the sexes. She also uncovers the unsavory truth that her professor had serial affairs with his students, that she had not been the only one. The relationship between Reddy and the son turns into competition over who has ownership of the father’s sullied story. And then Reddy discovers she is pregnant. It’s not a happy ending!

Katherine: I remember thinking of Wendy Wasserstein as l watched that play. . .

Sharmon: I’m flattered! But while that was being produced, Joan and I were brainstorming what to do next. When we finished got water? Joan said, “I want to do something that has to do with women. Women and creativity.” 

After a lot of discussion we decided we wanted to work with famous women artists. Originally, we were going to have a bunch of women artists together in a play, but that was way too chaotic and we decided to do them one at a time. We chose Emily Dickinson and Georgia O’Keeffe, both American icons in their fields. They were very different people, from different historical times. Georgia was born exactly 18 months after Emily died. They were both affected by deeply entrenched prejudices against women as creative writers and artists.

We were interested in the struggles they had that were connected to their creative work. Emily worked mostly in secret, while Georgia became a very well-known artist in her lifetime. With both of them, there came a time of deep depression; with Emily it was possibly a psychotic breakdown. In both cases, hanging on to their creativity helped pull them out of these depths. 

Joan and I saw emotional struggles in both of these women that were familiar to us in our own lives, our own struggles to make space in our lives to create, and an awareness that turning to our creative work had helped process and pull us through emotional difficulties. For us, it was affirming to get to know Dickinson and O’Keeffe; we were in such amazing company while we worked on these plays!

Theater poster for Sharmon Hilfiger's Imaginal Disks

Katherine: In Tell It Slant, the play about Emily Dickinson, you introduced a kind of dance movement with a cord into the structure of the play. . .

Sharmon: Yes. This was when Joan and I really “hit our stride!” We didn’t want to stick with the Musical Theater format that we had used in Imaginal Disks and got water? We wanted the play to be an ensemble piece, with all the actors on stage all the time, playing multiple roles, lots of movement and the music woven into the fabric of the play. Joan was at the piano throughout the rehearsal process, and she started to improvise underneath scenes, creating musical commentary for the scenes.

She also wrote exquisite music to score the Emily Dickinson poems that were sung. This music stands on its own. We have lots of CDs, if anyone wants to hear it! 

The cord that you mention was used as a prop throughout the play. It represented a line which could be all sorts of things: a laundry line, a line of poetry, the noose that Emily considers hanging herself from. It was a part of the continual choreographic staging that our director, Rachel Anderson created. 

Rachel created an amazingly collaborative rehearsal room and out of this came the kind of ensemble theater piece that Joan and I had envisioned. I think that our idea of “ensemble work” was probably informed by our musical backgrounds. By this time, Joan and I were also playing classical chamber music together—small ensemble works that don’t rely on conductors, but rather very close listening among the members.

Tell It Slant was a co-production with BootStrap Theatre Foundation and The Pear Theatre in Mountain View. We later took it to the Fort Mason Center Southside Theater in San Francisco.

Katherine: So did you do Hanging Georgia, about Georgia O’Keeffe, after that? 

Sharmon: Yes, we created Hanging Georgia with most of the same actors from Tell It Slant. We had a sense of  “being a company,” something that is hard to achieve here, with the way theater work is structured as a gig-economy. We were not able to continue with Rachel Anderson as director because she had moved away. But we wanted to keep the same style of production: ensemble, music and movement integrated throughout, all actors on stage at all times so there was transparency about the process of telling the story. We were very lucky to get Jake Margolin as our director and he understood our aesthetic. 

Joan’s music was often focused on creating a sense of the physical environment of the scenes. We were with Georgia as a young woman in Texas, so she had a kind of country-cowboy piece; at Steiglitz’s family homestead at Lake George, so there was a very lively roaring-twenties picnic song; there was an evocative New Mexico shaman-like song. Again, Joan was onstage, performing throughout, adding her improvisations as background to the scenes.

BootStrap co-produced this with TheatreFIRST at what is now called the Potrero Stage in San Francisco. We did it there first and then we remounted it at The Pear.

Katherine: I remember you had some kind of copyright issues with O’Keeffe’s estate. 

Sharmon: Yes, you helped me with that! You were the one who told me we had to get permission from the O’Keeffe estate. Our original idea, (which in retrospect I thought, “thank God we couldn’t do that!”) was to have photographs of O’Keeffe’s artwork projected on a screen when she had scenes that were around the time she was painting a particular painting. But we were not allowed by the O’Keeffe Foundation to use images of any of her paintings. A blessing in disguise, because I think it would’ve totally upstaged what was going on, and that’s where everybody’s focus would’ve gone and it wouldn’t have worked out. Jake, our director, came up with the idea to use empty frames, knowing that people are familiar with her work. We had displays of her paintings (photos cut out of books we bought!) in the lobby. It really worked well. 

Sharmon Hilfinger and collaborator Joan McMillen
Sharmon Hilfinger and collaborator Joan McMillen

Katherine: Then you and Joan did another ecological play, Arctic Requiem: The story of Luke Cole and Kivalina. You knew the main character in this play, he existed and his story is a very powerful one.

Sharmon: Yes, I knew Luke, very briefly. I’m a friend of his wife, who is an actor, Nancy Shelby. She came to me and said, “We’re going to Argentina. Do you have any advice about where to go?” It turned out that we were going to be in Argentina at that time and told them to please come and visit us. (I married an Argentinian and we live there for part of every year.) So Luke and Nancy came to our house in Argentina for three days. Before that I had only met him briefly, shook his hand once at the intermission of a play and that was about it. Luke, an environmental justice lawyer, was on a six month sabbatical trip. 

During those three days he mentioned that the reason he was able to take a sabbatical was because he had finally settled this case in Kivalina. I asked him about the case and he explained that it was about this zinc mine that had completely polluted the water of this Inupiat Village in Kivalina, Alaska. Luke was a good storyteller. He talked about a meeting that he, as the lawyer for the people of Kivalina, had with the lawyers from the zinc mine in which they said that the mine would no longer be violating the EPA standards for polluting the water, so Kivalina (and Luke) would no longer have a case against them. As he pushed them for details on how they were reducing the toxins in the water, it finally came out that they weren’t changing anything in their water processing; they had convinced the EPA to change their standards so that their level of toxicity would be EPA acceptable.

That’s all I knew about Luke and Kivalina. 

We had such a good time together and he was going off to Antarctica and then to Africa and we said good-bye and we’ll see you in June when you come back to San Francisco. We were all looking forward to continuing this friendship. Then on June 9th, I got a telephone call that he had been killed and Nancy had lost an eye in a car accident in Africa.

We went to his memorial service at Cowell Theatre in San Francisco. The place was packed! There were so many people who spoke, including a delegation from Kivalina who came to honor him. Toward the end of the service a speaker asked that anyone in the auditorium “who feels that their life has been affected by Luke Cole to stand up,” and everybody jumped to their feet! I had not realized that he was such a huge force in the environmental justice movement. His passing was a significant loss to the environmental justice movement. Not long after that, I wrote to Nancy and I said I would like to write a play about Luke and Kivalina but I wanted to check with her, is this okay? Her response was, “It’s okay but I can’t have anything to do with it.” By the time Joan and I got around to actually working on the project, Nancy was involved. She put us in touch with Luke’s colleagues and with the people in Kivalina. Joan and I went to Kivalina and stayed in the house of one of the villagers for a week. As it evolved, Nancy became very, very involved and then became my co-producer. She helped put together the creative team. She was the one who brought Giulio Perrone to the team as set designer, and now Gulio is a part of my life. Which was a good thing!

Theater poster for Arctic Requiem: the story of Luck Cole and Kivalina

Katherine: The play was so beautiful especially the way you meshed the reality of the issue of pollution with the spirituality of the native people. You had that wonderful actor who played the Raven. He was a dancer so you got this wonderful dance movement into the play.

Sharmon: Yes. That was probably the hardest play that I’ve done for multiple reasons. Joan and I had the aesthetic that we had created with Tell It Slant and Hanging Georgia. The “company” with those two productions were all younger people, they were open to trying something that was different than what they had done before. With Arctic Requiem, we had very seasoned actors and a director, whom we discovered as the process unfolded, didn’t really share our aesthetic. So, there was a lot of tension in the rehearsal room.

That said, Arctic Requiem was our biggest box office success. I guess the tension pushed everyone to make it work.

Katherine: We didn’t talk about your play The Gods Must Be Crazy: A Dark Comedy for Dark Times. Why did you write it? 

Sharmon: That came about because of Giulio Perrone, who was the set designer for Arctic Requiem. He also has his own company, Inferno Theatre, and after Arctic Requiem closed, he came to me and said, “I’d like to keep working with you. Write something and we’ll produce it together.” 

The last three plays that I had written had all been about real people: Dickinson, O’Keeffe, Luke Cole and the people of Kivalina. I was ready to write something where I was not beholden to the constraints and details of being historically accurate. The mythological Raven was one of the characters in Arctic Requiem that I really liked; Raven is a trickster and a lot of fun to play with. He is also part of the creation myth of the Eskimo people. And there was a character in Tell It Slant, Demiurge, that I felt I wasn’t finished writing about. So I started with those two characters and let them kind of inform me about what I might write.

The premise became the gods are not happy with what humans are doing with the earth’s environment, so they get together to figure out what they need to do. I decided to assemble a diverse group of gods. I started finding all these weird gods, like Lui Hsing the Chinese god of jobs, salaries and fortune; Dhumavati, the Indian god of poverty; Pachamama an Incan earth mother; Ra, the Egyptian sun god. The play’s conceit is that these gods are appalled by the human-related activities impacting the earth, but can these gods help the situation or would they be just as unruly as the humans? Ultimately, the gods kidnap two powerful men (unnamed, but they really resembled the Koch brothers) in their efforts to regain control of the earth’s environment. 

This was a co-production of BootStrap and Inferno. Giulio directed the production and Joan and I were the musicians on piano and violin. We had not originally planned it that way, as Giulio had asked a wonderful Persian percussionist to provide the music/soundscape, but he pulled out right before we started rehearsals. So, Joan and I created some music and pulled together other existing music. It was an eclectic mix of music to accompany these diverse gods.

Katherine: How did this play come to be performed at the Brower Center in Berkeley?

Sharmon: Well, as Giulio and I were planning the production, we were looking for a venue in the East Bay. I went online and found the Brower Center in Berkeley. I contacted them and said, here’s who we are, we are doing an environmental play and could we do some performances there? It would be perfect. The executive director wrote back immediately and said yes. It was another one of those convergences that are so empowering when they happen so easily. We performed it there one weekend, and the other performances were at the Preservation Church in Oakland. 

At the Brower Center we were looking for a way to make this more than just a theater performance, we wanted it to be a community event. We invited a panel of environmental leaders to speak afterwards. Ingrid Brostrom from Luke Cole’s environmental law firm, The Center for Race, Poverty and The Environment; Sumona Majumdar, Executive Director at Earth Island Institute (which was founded by David Brower); and Dr Janice L. Kirsch, MD, MPH of The Climate Mobalization. They each talked about pressing environmental issues that their organizations are working on. It was very well attended, which was gratifying.

Katherine: I know writing a play is hard but ultimately you have to get it produced! Was that the impetus for BootStrap?

Sharmon: Yes. I took on everything when I started BootStrap. I had to because, quite honestly, I had this huge hiatus in my theater career. When I started writing plays, I had absolutely no network at all, nothing. You can’t do anything without a network, especially in theater, because you rely on other people to create a play—it’s not just you, the writer, sitting alone in a room. 

I mentioned earlier that I was taking classes at the Eureka Theatre while they were producing Tony Kushner’s Angels In America. Around that time, we went to a fundraiser for the Eureka and Tony Kushner was there. I asked him where he would recommend I send my plays. He said, “Produce them yourself!” I took him to heart. 

It was about a year and a half later that An Ideal Mother was in rehearsal at Menlo Players. Dean Burgee let me sit in all the rehearsals and participate in some of the design decisions. After that experience, I said, “Okay, I can do this, I can produce a play.” I founded BootStrap Theater Foundation in 1998 in order to produce A History of Things That Never Happened. And, of course, I was completely naïve about what I was getting into!

So for me, the hardest thing in writing a play? It’s getting it all the way to the stage.

Katherine: You have had plays at Zspace, at the Magic Theatre, The Pear and other venues in San Francisco.
I think that’s amazing because I know it’s not easy, it takes a lot of pushing and drive. 

Sharmon: And a lot of fundraising!

I always say doing a play, the way I have done it, where each time we have to raise the money, find the space, hire all the artists, build the set, make the costumes, run the rehearsals, create all the marketing, sell the tickets—it’s like a start up. You have to start everything up, build the product, and then it has a shelf life of four weeks. It’s insane, and I love it!

Katherine Bazak is a painter who works primarily with the human figure. Its potential for change, movement and intellect appeal to her optimistic view of life. She finds the figure to be a fascinating subject that demands close observation. She has a BFA in Painting/Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA in Painting from the University of Wisconsin.

Cynthia Sears

Monday, February 6th, 2023
Cynthia Sears smiles as she stands in front of a well lit display case filled with handmade books.
Cynthia Sears in the Sherry Grover Gallery at BIMA.

Meet Cynthia Sears, Champion of the Arts

Cynthia Sears is a creativity explorer and the founder of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. She is known for her extensive support of artists, writers and cultural entities. Her collections include paintings and sculptures; antique and finely bound books; and some 1800 artist’s books, which comprise the Cynthia Sears Artist’s Books Collection at BIMA.

A pioneer in cultural support, Sears has collected and donated numerous works of regional artists to BIMA, creating a rich legacy of Pacific Northwest artistic production. Her wide ranging appreciation of the arts is demonstrated in BIMA’s community-centered mission and diverse programming which includes musical and theatrical performance; hands on educational activities; lectures, tours, and a wide array of community outreach events including an online series Artist’s Books Unshelved. This year BIMA is launching four generous biennial awards to support both regional artists and an artist making books. These BRAVA Awards (BIMA Recognizes Achievement in the Visual Arts) are in celebration of the tenth anniversary of BIMA in 2023, and a further expression of Sears’ belief in the value of the arts to human existence.

We conversed via zoom over a span of four months, discussing a range of subjects which touch on aspects of Cynthia’s life and thinking, including her work in radio and film, social and environmental issues, collecting and philanthropy, education and the arts. 

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Art Grice.
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Art Grice.

Nanette: What is your background: growing up, education, early careers? 

Cynthia: I spent my childhood in Beverly Hills. I went to public school through eighth grade and then to a girls’ boarding school in Virginia, Chatham Hall. I was actually relieved that I wasn’t going to Beverly High because the girls that I knew in 7th and 8th grade who were going there were so much more sophisticated than I was. They were very concerned with boyfriends and convertibles and cashmere sweaters. . . they were already like late teenagers. I wasn’t ready for any of that. The idea of going off to a place where you had lessons in the morning and then rode horses in the afternoon was heaven. My older sister went to Chatham first. I couldn’t wait to go because I met many of her friends, whom she would bring home during vacations. They were great, interesting girls, so I couldn’t wait to go. Going to that boarding school was one of the great experiences of my life. 

Then, I went to college at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, also a small institution. The entire student body was only 750 girls. It was out in the country and beautiful. I just loved it. It looked like a medieval fortress—towering gray stone buildings which were built out of mica schist which catches the light so that it sparkles in the sun (I learned in my geography class). 

I studied English Literature and Latin. I was sure I was going to be a writer. Well, that didn’t happen, but I was convinced of it when I was in college. I had a wonderful experience with terrific people. 

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Art Grice.
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo: Art Grice.

Nanette: What happened after college? 

Cynthia: After college I got a wonderful job teaching in the Bronx. I was a teacher at the Hoffman School. It was a school for kids who didn’t exactly fit other places, either because the child was super intelligent and could get bored in a regular classroom, or kids who had physical or mental challenges. They were all mixed together in the classes and it really worked. It was extraordinary. 

I was hired as a Latin teacher. I taught Latin to second through sixth grades. We made Latin books and grammar books. They would say things like, “If the verb goes at the very end, how do you know who is doing what to whom? Maybe you make sounds so that you know this is the person who is doing the throwing and this is the thing being thrown.” They basically invented the accusative case. 

Nanette: Latin isn’t really taught much anymore. People who know Latin know the meanings of almost all the words in Western languages. 

Cynthia: Yes, and it’s oh so much fun. At the Hoffman School it had a secondary benefit. Many of the kids who were challenged for one reason or another, had brothers and sister at home going to regular schools. When their children would go home and say that they had learned Latin and could now read Latin, it was a big deal because their siblings weren’t going to get Latin until high school. That turned out to be an important aspect of their success. 

I taught at the Hoffman School for three years and then I got married and went back to California and started on a different path. 

Nanette: Did you get married to a California boy? 

Cynthia: Yes. Both of David’s parents taught at Stanford and he went to Stanford as an undergraduate. I met him when I was visiting my sister who was attending Stanford as well. So we met when I was in college and married years later. 

David [David Sears, a professor of psychology] got a position in the Psych Department at UCLA and we ended up living about two miles from where I was born. The weather and outdoor life make it a nice, easy place to raise children. 

Jenny Andersen, Fox Spirit. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.
Jenny Andersen, Fox Spirit. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: You had a radio show “Writers and Writing” in Los Angeles. Will you share a few memorable stories from that experience. 

Cynthia: I had been listening to KPFK in Los Angeles [a station in the Pacifica network of independent media]. I went to the station for one of their fundraising benefits and met some people. They asked what I was interested in and I said writing. They said, “Do you want to invite a writer over and interview him on the radio?” 

I had recently met this young Canadian poet, Arthur Lane, who went on to become a distinguished professor, but did not publish much poetry. I thought it sounded like fun and Arthur was a good friend so I thought: How scary can it be? Well, It turns out I have acute mic fright. I was sitting in the broadcast room with a microphone in front of me and I was virtually in tears. Arthur looked at me and said, “I bet you’re wondering where I get my ideas, and I bet you’d like to ask me. . .” I didn’t have to say a thing. He interviewed himself. That was so easy. One thing I am really grateful to Arthur for is that he introduced me to Billy Collins, who was one of his best friends from grad school. They were having a poetry correspondence. Billy Collins has become a really close friend. 

For another fundraiser I brought my older daughter, Juliet, when she was in second grade because she was a really good reader. She read Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies on the air. The verses are so hilarious, especially when read by a seven year old. 

By 1969 I was doing a weekly radio show. That turned out to be the most fun, apart from the scary part of dealing with a mic. I could call up any of my heroes who were writers and say “I have a radio program and I would like to interview you on tape.” And they would say, “Sure.” It was magical. 

Nanette: It wasn’t a live show? 

Cynthia: I interviewed on tape. I only did two live shows with guests that were self starters and happy to talk about themselves. All of the writers were so amazing in person—they were open and generous and funny. The fact that I was so visibly nervous must have been reassuring to them. There are times when the person in control isn’t actually in control and it turns out best. 

Nanette: Were you writing at that time yourself?

Cynthia: No, I was writing just the intros and outros for the program. 

Nanette: How long did you have the radio show? 

Cynthia: Once a week for seven or eight years. I was able to spend a day with Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and another with John Cheever and John Irving. I spent weeks with Henry Miller because he became a really good friend. He lived nearby in Pacific Palisades. I had become an experienced tape editor because I had all these quavery introductions that sounded like I was on my last legs—I was so trembly in my voice, but with a razor blade and editing tape I could make myself sound brave and confident and literate. Henry had a disconcerting speech habit while he was thinking of the next thing to say: mmmm mmmmm mmmmm. I was able to edit that out and he said I made him sound like Alan Watts. He was so happy. When Henry Miller turned 80, Lawrence Durrell flew in from France and we had parties to celebrate Henry. 

N. Scott Momaday painting. Collection of Cynthia Sears.
N. Scott Momaday painting. Cynthia Sears Collection.

I interviewed N. Scott Momaday just after he had won the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn. I absolutely adored him. I had written a paper on his work while in college. He had the most amazing voice. As I recall he had been trained to be a preacher. . . When I went to interview him he was living outside of Santa Barbara. He talked about the myths and legends of the Kiowa people and then abruptly he had to excuse himself to go to his Gourmet Cooking Club meeting. He did a painting for me of a wolf and an eagle that I still have and treasure. 

Nanette: You also worked in the film industry as writer and producer, mostly with documentaries. Your 1978 film, Battered, was strikingly innovative for it’s time—the subject of domestic violence and encompassing realities, the use of a narrative weave to follow multiple characters’ paths, the subtleties of showing rather than telling the individual stories and related issues, the inclusion of black characters on socially equal footing with white, the absence of sensation and definitive final resolutions, and the fact of being a female writer and producer in a male dominated industry. What can you tell us about this experience—your motivations, challenges, joys. . . 

Cynthia: I had become friends with Karen Grassle who was dating a good friend of mine. Karen, at that time, had just started performing in Little House on the Prairie. We were talking about how we wanted to write something, we wanted it to be important and not frivolous. We had independently come to meet a woman who was involved with a battered women’s shelter in Los Angeles. She invited us over to a safe house to talk to some of the women who didn’t mind talking about their experiences. The really distressing thing for us was finding out how many women had been stuck in abusive relationships because they were economically dependent on their husbands. There was nowhere for them to go, nothing for them to do. Most of them tolerated being abused themselves and it was only when their husbands began abusing the children that they would feel it was necessary to get out. 

It was an issue that Karen and I were concerned with. At that time Karen was associated with the character Ma on Little House. The studio loved her. So it was an ideal time if we were going to get studio support. It was also a contrast with the character she played on Little House where the only thing that goes wrong was the weather or the crops, certainly nothing within the family. 

We decided to write an account of a battered woman. We wanted to have enough characters so that any socio-economic level would be represented, so that it wasn’t just working class men that beat up on their wives. The first person we asked to be in this show was Mike Farrell who was doing M.A.S.H. He played a wonderful loving, gentle character on M.A.S.H. He had a relative who had been abused and thought this was an important topic. As we went on inviting different actors to be a part of this show we found that almost everyone we spoke to had been acquainted with someone who had experience with this issue. That was very shocking to me. 

We asked Levar Burton and he said he was interested. We showed him a sample of the script and he said, “Oh typical, you’re making a black man into a batterer.” We said, “No. All of the men in this story are guilty of spousal abuse and lack self control. But in fact, Levar, your character is the only one with a successful outcome.” We didn’t really know what we were doing but we wanted to have every possible outcome. One woman was going to die. One was going to get a divorce. One was going to go to counseling with her husband, that was Levar’s character. He was happy with that outcome. 

Howard Duff, whom I had grown up listening to as Sam Spade on the radio, was the character whose wife dies as a result of her abuse. Mike Farrell played the husband whose wife ends up divorcing him. We found that, when we were preparing for a rehearsal all of the people involved—makeup, costumes, cinematography—would want to talk about the issue. So we would have, kind of, discussion sessions—talking at the beginning and showing the resources that were available at the time. I think it was an important movie at the time. I’m very proud of it. 

Nanette: Do you think it had an effect on the larger population in bringing awareness to domestic abuse? 

Cynthia: I was hopeful when it was going on the air that it was going to solve the problem. I was convinced of that. So of course I was disappointed when it didn’t. But I think it made a difference. All the local hot lines reported a lot of calls and visits. It probably did as much as a single show could. 

Nanette: How was it working in a male dominated field? 

Cynthia: It was interesting. At NBC at that time there was a great deal of support for this project and I’m not really sure why. It was a Monday night “movie of the week.” 

Nanette: You and Karen wrote the script?

Cynthia: Yes. We had done a couple of storylines for Little House

Nanette: Did you do other documentaries? 

Cynthia: I did not. I always intended to. An organization grew out of the movie that still exists in Los Angeles. It’s now called Peace Over Violence. I was involved with getting that established and creating a board of directors for it, and working with the Santa Monica rape treatment program. I sort of left writing at that point. 

Inlaid book cloth design in a binding by Cynthia Sears.
Inlaid book cloth design in a binding by Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: Are you a maker of objects as well as a cultural worker? 

Cynthia: When I first met Frank [Buxton] he was a bookbinder. He had a bindery in Hollywood. I had come across an antique book that had become completely unbound. I took it to the bindery to see if someone could repair it. I met Frank. He fixed that book. I immediately went home and started looking for more books that needed repair. I took a bookbinding class with him. So I have bound books myself, and I collaborated with Frank on three or four. I never got good enough to do a full leather binding. I would do designs in book cloth with inlaid book cloth. People would get hysterical because you don’t take book cloth and make an inlaid pattern with it. 

Nanette: I think now people are doing that. You are an innovator there. 

One of the activities that you are currently known for is your extensive collecting of artist’s books. Do you recall your first encounter with an artist book? 

Cynthia: My sister gave me Susan King’s Women and Cars as a Christmas present. It was a landmark book at the time. Then I was in San Francisco and went into an art gallery. I saw across the room what looked like a cave. I went up close and saw at the very back of the cave the figure of a tiny octopus. I asked the gallery owner “What is that?” They said it was “an artist’s book by Julie Chen.” 

Women and Cars by Susan King. Artist's book published by Women's Studio Workshop, 1983. Flag book format.
Susan E. King, Women and Cars, 1983. Photo: Hunter Stroud & Laura Zander.

Nanette: There is a thread of the book in your life from that first book you took to get rebound and met Frank. . . 

Cynthia: Here it is repaired by Frank. [Cynthia shows me the book.] It is a friendship book from the early 1800s by Emily D. I got excited at one point and thought it might be Emily Dickinson, but no, it’s not. Her friends would come over and spend time at the vicarage where Emily lived. Her father was a pastor. When her friends would stay the night they would write a poem or paint a picture directly in the book. It was a blank book, not a published book. The art done by these young people is breathtaking. Just so beautiful. The poems are not all that great, but they are charming. 

Nanette: How did you come across this book. 

Cynthia: It was in an antique store in England. I absolutely loved it and handled it so much showing friends and such that it became completely disbound. So I took it to Frank and he fixed it and everything else. [Cynthia and Frank married in 1982.]

Nanette: Were you collecting books at that time? 

Cynthia: I just found this one. I have always loved books. My love of them evolved. Initially I was collecting old books and a lot of blank books that people had written poetry in or used as a sketch book. I started looking specifically for artist’s books after I bought Julie Chen’s Octopus.

Nanette: How did you come to found Bainbridge Island Museum of Art? 

Cynthia: Frank and I were thinking of moving to Bainbridge Island from Los Angeles. Friends had told us it was the best place in the world and a haven for artists. So we came up to look and were looking around in town. We went into one little gallery and asked where is the art that this island is so famous for. They said, “Oh, it’s in private houses. You’ll get to know people and they will invite you in.” It was at that point before we moved here that I thought this island needed an art museum. There is no point in being an island devoted to art if no one can see the work. This was 1989. We had come up to visit Richard and Margaret Stine, but we wanted to surprise them and didn’t tell them we were coming and they were away for the weekend. We didn’t know what else to do so we bought a house. 

Alfredo Arreguín, Salish Sea, 2017, oil on canvas. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.
Alfredo Arreguín, Salish Sea, oil on canvas, 2017. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: Is that the same house you are now living in? 

Cynthia: It is. We were looking for a place to rent because we thought it was pretty terrific here, but there were no rentals available at all. This house had just come on the market. We had been driving around and it was raining hard. There are glass panels in the front door of our house, and you can look right through to the sliding glass windows of the living room. As we were walking up to the front door the rain stopped and as we looked through the glass there was a rainbow coming down into the water. Frank said, “That’s kind of blatant. I don’t think we can afford to overlook this.” So we bought the house. 

I started talking to people to see if there was a way for the people on the island to share art they owned for a month. I was asking a lot of people about this, including my older daughter Juliet who had also moved to the island. Juliet is a horsewoman. She said, “Mom, if you want people to lend you their horses, first you have to show them that you have a decent barn to keep them in.” So we started a “barn raising.” It was as simple as that. It worked. I found it really invigorating. The artists are always so happy to participate. We are coming up on our tenth anniversary in June so I may have forgotten some of the drudge. It’s sort of like childbirth. I remember now that it was just the easiest thing in the world. 

Nanette: How long did it take to break ground after you started fundraising? 

Cynthia: To break ground? Just over a year. 

Nanette: Wow. That is incredible. The museum is a non-profit and you were able to go that fast? 

Cynthia: It wasn’t like I was standing on Winslow Avenue saying “We need a museum.” There was also a bit of serendipity because the museum site had just become vacant. People were talking about putting a parking lot there. It’s the first corner you see when you come off the ferry. I knew that if the museum was going to represent the town it needed to have a prominent place. I was able to buy the land on that first corner, and that was great. We have more parking lots than we know what to do with on the island. 

Frank Buxton and Cynthia Sears on the construction site of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art in October 2012.
Frank Buxton and Cynthia Sears on the construction site of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art in October 2012.

Nanette: Did you run the museum initially or did you hire right away? 

Cynthia: We hired Greg Robinson right away. He is now our superb head curator. As far as being an administrator, Sheila Hughes is brilliant in that role. 

Nanette: So you were the vision. 

Cynthia: Yes. 

Nanette: What is the history of the Cynthia Sears Artist’s Books Collection. How has the collection developed and evolved over time? 

Cynthia: I really didn’t think of it as a collection until Catherine Alice Michaelis started working for me. She was very clear that it was. I just thought they were books that I didn’t want to be very far away from, ever. 

Nanette: So they were still at home. 

Cynthia: Yes. The collection as a whole only just this year went to the museum for storage. They’ve always been a part of the museum, but they didn’t live there. 

Nanette: But you have a display room for books with cases. . . 

Sherry Grover Gallery at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Keith Brofsky.
Sherry Grover Gallery at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo: Keith Brofsky.

Cynthia: Yes. The Sherry Grover Gallery was from the very beginning intended to have nothing but artist’s books. The gallery is named after my closest friend who died a few years ago. She was an amazing person. 

Nanette: Are you involved on deciding on the book exhibitions. 

Cynthia: Yes for the books. Catherine Alice and I do all the book displays. A new one every four months. Every three years we are allowed to break out of the gallery and take the whole top floor of the museum with the books. That is when you really have a chance to see them. We have petting zoos to allow children to touch the books. 

Nanette: Do you have a collecting agenda? 

Cynthia: Anything I see that I love. It’s my greedy side. 

Nanette: What makes an artwork successful? 

Cynthia: If it captures the imagination of the viewer. Whatever that means. It has to stir the blood to be successful. 

Gayle Bard, Near Keswick, 2011, oil on canvas. Collection of Cynthia Sears.
Gayle Bard, Near Keswick, oil on canvas, 2011. Cynthia Sears Collection.

Nanette: Bainbridge Island Museum of Art has a specific focus on regional artists. Who are the regional artists that you find to be particularly engaging? 

Cynthia: The first artist on the island whose work I bought was Gayle Bard. Her paintings are landscapes, but to me she is painting air. Early on, I bought two large pieces of hers, each one about 10′ wide by 8′ tall and they fill the room with a sense of fresh air! Another favorite artist of mine is Kurt Solmssen. Many of Kurt’s paintings are interiors, scenes of domestic life. He often uses his own home and family as his subjects. And still another favorite is a Mexican-born painter, Alfredo Arreguin who lives in Seattle. His work is simply magical.

Nanette: You show these works next door at a gallery called Yonder

Cynthia: Yonder is our guest house next door. It is where we entertain. It is called Yonder because when we were building it a friend from the South kept asking, “How are things going over yonder?” Then everyone started calling it that. It is a guest house, a party house and a gallery. 

Another Bainbridge artist I collect is Johnpaul Jones. He is an architect. He was the lead design consultant of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The paintings and drawings I have of his are all animals. Beautiful paintings of local critters: birds, foxes, owls, ravens, coyotes.

Kurt Solmssen Reading Sociology, oil on linen, 48" x 46". Cynthia Sears collection.
Kurt Solmssen, Reading Sociology, oil on linen, 48″ x 46″. Cynthia Sears collection.

Nanette: Why do you think Bainbridge Island is a Mecca for artists? 

Cynthia: It might have something to do with the fact that it was for a long time the summer home for Seattlites. They were people who appreciated art. It just seems to be a given that people care about art when they are on Bainbridge Island. 

Nanette: What goals are you currently working on and what do you hope to achieve with them? 

Cynthia: I want to ensure that the museum is absolutely solid. So I am working on the endowment. I don’t want it to be left up to any individual to have to rescue it. 

I would like to do what I can to encourage people to collect artist’s books so that book artists have an audience that wants their work. I feel that collecting art/appreciating art is somehow somewhat passive because it’s all given to you right on the canvas. The reason I like artist’s books so much is because you have to read the book to get it. It invites you in and is a very active engagement. But just saying that doesn’t convince people that they should start collecting artist’s books. 

Cynthia Sears with daughters Juliet and Olivia.
Cynthia Sears with daughters Juliet and Olivia.

Nanette: How do you think going to all girl schools impacted your life and your decisions? 

Cynthia: I think that for women a single sex school is absolutely enabling. I was able to focus so much more on what I was learning and wanted to do with my life in high school and college than I ever did in grammar school. Obviously there is or should be a maturation that is taking place, but I was totally distracted by boys when I was in a mixed class. I never wanted to sound too brainy or compete with them. It was only when nobody was saying anything that I would raise my hand. So for me it was very liberating to not be conscious of myself as a maturing girl, and whatever that meant. I would recommend a single sex school in general, although my daughters went to public high schools. It’s funny I didn’t pass that belief or gene onto my girls and they have done just fine. 

Nanette: It’s different times. . .

Cynthia: Yes. I just loved being in the all girl classes. 

Nanette: Tell me a bit about your younger daughter Olivia. 

Cynthia: Olivia is a poet and translator. She runs an organization in San Francisco called CAT, The Center for the Art of Translation. It publishes translations from an astonishing number of languages into English. They also publish a journal of original translations each year. 

Nanette: What are some of your other philanthropic interests? 

Cynthia: I love and support, as much as I can, all of the arts. I love theater arts, film, silent film, really any of the arts. But it is very intentional. I took a trip in a private plane and eventually felt very guilty knowing just what that one trip could do to the environment. I ended up making eleven gifts to organizations that protect the environment and analyze things like the ecological effects of our activities. That giving was about things I felt guilty about, giving to organizations that are doing important work. A lot of years ago everyone just thought everything was going to last forever, and one didn’t have to give it [the environment] a second thought. Man, were we wrong. 

Alfredo Arreguín, Spring Sea, 2011, oil on canvas. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.
Alfredo Arreguín, Spring Sea, 2011, oil on canvas. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: Why are the arts important? 

Cynthia: That’s like asking, Why is life important? It’s so huge to even approach as a question. It’s like asking, What is the meaning of life? 

Interview by Nanette Wylde with thanks to Myrna Ougland, Catherine Alice Michaelis, and BIMA.
All images courtesy of Cynthia Sears, the artists, BIMA, or otherwise stated.

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

Kathleen Canrinus

Tuesday, September 13th, 2022

A Tale of Two Remarkable Women: Interview with the author of The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience by Helen Gibbons

Bay Area native Kathleen Canrinus wrote The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience to honor her mother, Dorothy. When Kathleen was 15, her mother suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. After three months in a coma, Dorothy emerged partially paralyzed and cognitively impaired, upending the life of her family. 

Photo of Kathleen at work in her small office. Behind her is a painting by her father, who took up oil painting after retirement, immersing himself in it much as Kathleen has immersed herself in writing. Photo: Don Anderson
Photo of Kathleen at work in her small office. Behind her is a painting by her father, who took up oil painting after retirement, immersing himself in it much as Kathleen has immersed herself in writing. Photo: Don Anderson

Kathleen’s memoir focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, particularly its evolution during the 54 years between Dorothy’s accident and her death at age 99. There were plenty of challenges, but also lots of laughter and, oh, so much love. It’s a story I will enjoy reading again and again, finding some new insight or well-crafted sentence to relish each time.

I met Kathleen in 2006 when we both joined the World Harmony Chorus in Mountain View, California, and our conversations over the years have focused mostly on music. I wanted to learn more about Kathleen’s writing life and in particular The Lady with the Crown. We exchanged some emails and then sat down to talk. Our conversation is edited and condensed.

Helen: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

Kathleen: I came to writing late in life, that is, after I retired from teaching elementary school. When I signed up for my first writing class, I had in mind writing stories from my life and wanted to tell them well.  Even though I have now written a book that was published, and numerous personal essays too, I still hesitate to introduce myself to a stranger as a writer. But as far as thinking of myself as a writer, that came in the first few years of writing seriously, when I discovered that I was a person who noticed and remembered things, that I could write an occasional beautiful sentence, that I had a sense of how to shape a story, and most importantly, that finding words to match experience brought with it a thrill like nothing else. Writing lends meaning and purpose to my life. I like the Joan Didion quote: “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” 

Helen: How did The Lady with the Crown come to be?

Kathleen: The Lady with the Crown evolved from stories I wrote about my mother over a decade in various writing workshops and classes. My mother had a remarkable attitude about life in spite of epic reversals. She was funny too—good material. I was never writing about her for family alone but for people like my classmates and possible future readers who didn’t know her. I intended to honor her and others who live small lives with dignity and courage. Although I wrote about other topics like friendship, marriage, and aging, the response to the mother stories was the most positive. I planned to string them together in a book and had finished most of them when the editor at a small press offered me a contract.

Helen: What a great opportunity! What happened next?

Kathleen: Next I spent nine months finishing a manuscript. Everything I had already written needed to be revised and new chapters added to complete the story. My editor made a lot of suggestions that improved the book.

Helen: Can you share examples?

Kathleen: When I originally thought about doing a book, I thought I would take the stories I had written about my mother and link them very loosely, like the stories in Olive Kitteridge [a novel by Elizabeth Strout that is a collection of interrelated stories]. I thought that approach would make my task easy. But when I told the editor, she said, “No, no, no! Make it one story. And whether you like it or not,” she added, “you’re the main character. You need to put yourself into this story; you’re not just the witness.” 

Helen: Did following her advice make the task harder?

Kathleen: Yes, and it made the book better. Here’s another example: After my father died, my mother had a series of caregivers at her home in Santa Cruz—one bad one after the other. I was living hundreds of miles away in Southern California. I tried to make the arrangement work, but eventually I had to give up and take over. In my first draft, I summed it up briefly, something like, “We had a series of disastrous caregivers, and finally I brought my mother to live with me.” And the editor said, “No, no, you need to put that in scene.”

Helen: “In scene”?

Kathleen: Putting something in scene means that you don’t use a lot of narrative description. Instead, you use images, dialogue, and sensory details to bring the reader into the story. As Nancy Packer [short story author and emerita English professor at Stanford University] puts it, “Make it happen on the page.” So I went back and included phone conversations and moved through the caregiving calamities step by step. It’s harder to write that way. It would have been easier just to say, “That was a tough time.” It wasn’t a time I particularly wanted to re-experience, which is something that happens in the writing.

Kathleen and Dorothy.
Kathleen and Dorothy. Photo: Don Anderson

Helen: What else was going on in your life as you did this work?

Kathleen: The pandemic offered uninterrupted writing time. While I was finishing the book, I stayed active in writing groups, but on Zoom. I also sang world music with our chorus—for a while on Zoom, and then distanced and masked outdoors. I hiked, swam, made sourdough bread, and explored Japanese cuisine. I reread memoirs that, like mine, describe caring for or coping with a severely brain-damaged loved one—Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, for example, and Family Life by Akhil Sharma. At the end of the summer, I sent my publisher the final draft of the manuscript from Montana where I was visiting my daughter. It took another four months to polish the writing, work out cover and interior designs, and plan publicity, during which time my husband had a knee replacement—a lot to juggle! Getting the word out is an ongoing project.

Helen: Did you read parts of the book to your mother?

Kathleen: No. Because of my mother’s short-term memory problems, I never read any of the book to her. I talked to her about her grandmother though, and early days on College Avenue [the Los Gatos house where Dorothy grew up and Kathleen spent her early years], things she remembered. Several times, I mentioned to her that I was writing about her. “Me?” her shrug and blank expression seemed to say. “Why me?” 

Helen: How about other family members?

Kathleen: In general, I’ve kept my writing life mostly private. My family was aware that I was taking writing classes, but I never talked much about them or about writing except to other writers. For years I have thought of myself as a person learning to write, practicing, with nothing quite good enough to share yet. With the book, I had to go public. Before I sent it to the publisher, I read it aloud to one daughter, who is also interested in writing, and she made suggestions. My husband read it after I sent off the manuscript. I didn’t ever mention to family members that I was writing about them because, although they appear, the story is very focused on my mother and me and does not include much about other parts of my life.

Helen: In many of the scenes from your girlhood, you are reading. What are some of the books you enjoyed?

Kathleen: My parents read to me and my brother when we were little—nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and picture books like Make Way for Ducklings and The Golden Egg Book. The book that turned me into a reader is Pam’s Paradise Ranch. I lived my dream life while reading that book. As a girl, I consumed horse books by Walter Farley and others. Nancy Drew was a favorite, Cherry Ames too. I grabbed Boys’ Life magazine before my brother could read it. I also recall reading volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that were around the house. Later, I enjoyed Louisa May Alcott and the Brontës, Pearl Buck, and Jade Snow Wong. Gone With the Wind was the first book I read through the night to finish, or nearly. I read quite a lot of French literature in high school and college, all forgotten now except for titles.

Helen: What do you read now?

Kathleen: These days I particularly enjoy books by or about people my age—novels like The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson. I read younger authors too, like Lauren Groff and Curtis Sittenfeld. One of my favorite genres is literary nonfiction—three good examples are The Beak of the Finch, A Civil Action, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I enjoy many genres—poetry, biography, cookbooks, you name it—and I have read at least a hundred books about writing. 

Helen: Who are the authors that have most inspired you?

Kathleen: Certainly the two memoir writers I already mentioned: Abigail Thomas and Akhil Sharma. But if I could write like anyone, it would be Grace Paley. No one can, and that’s what makes her special. She wrote short stories that came directly from her life. “Wants” is my favorite short story by Paley.

Helen: What have you written besides The Lady with the Crown, and what are you working on now?

Kathleen: In addition to the memoir, I have published about a dozen essays—two since the memoir came out—and a book review. I wrote a poem about my father right after I finished the memoir. It’s hard to write about him because I can’t see his faults, I can’t see him really as human. After my mother’s accident, he stayed with her—he did all the cooking, he did the caregiving, he did everything. He didn’t complain, and he didn’t ever talk about his life being hard. He just carried on. I have always admired him for the choices that he made, and I want to write more about him. Meanwhile, I have three short stories underway. Fiction is harder for me than memoir, but it interests me and is a nice change.

Helen: Has writing become central to your life?

Kathleen: It has. The creativity of writing thrills me. Starting with a blank page and making something—it’s so different from anything else I have ever done. I loved collaborative teaching, but something about the non-collaborative aspect of writing, being on my own, appeals to me. From nothing to something, and I did it!

Helen: Do you have any advice for aspiring memoir writers?

Kathleen: Read. Read memoirs especially. And take a class. In a class, not only will you learn what to do and what to avoid when writing, but you will read great stories, both by published authors and by classmates. The first class I took was through a Bernard Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. In this class, an English woman who had worked at Bletchley Park [an Allied code-breaking center during World War II] sat next to a German woman who had survived Kristallnacht [a violent attack on Jews and Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues throughout Nazi Germany in 1938]. Both were terrific writers with compelling stories. Another classmate grew up poor in Hungary, came to this country, started a company, and invented a computer language. From other students, I learned what it was like to grow up in Iran and Holland, Michigan, and on a farm. If you don’t think you can remember enough to write about, try this: Imagine yourself in the home you grew up in or spent years of your childhood in. Walk through the rooms. I’ll bet you can even draw a floor plan. Open drawers. Listen for sounds like the front door closing. Add family members if you like.

Kathleen does a lot of writing at her kitchen table. Photo: Don Anderson

Helen: Did writing The Lady with the Crown help you process some of the trauma of your mother’s accident?

Kathleen: The answer to that is two-fold: “That’s not why I wrote it,” and “Yes, in a sense it did.” I wrote my memoir to share my remarkable mother. I included the dark parts like facing and owning up to a few unpleasant truths about myself to render the complete story and so others with similar experiences would know they are not alone. What’s true also is that the process of writing about this trauma, turning the chaos of experience—in my case a random tragic accident and its fallout—into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, giving the story shape and meaning made a difference in the way I hold the memories. I feel lighter. This is a therapeutic effect of the writing process. But for the record, no goal, whether freeing yourself, healing yourself, or even honoring a beloved mother excuses a writer from the hard work of making art. Writing about personal experiences is not easier than other kinds of writing. Good storytelling of any kind involves doing research, creating a narrative arc, and using all the elements of craft—dialogue, scene, and description—to bring the pages to life.

Helen: The Lady with the Crown was released in January of this year. What kind of feedback have you received?

Kathleen: The book has gotten good reviews, online and at readings. The feedback is extremely gratifying because the book has touched people. Every couple of weeks I get an email from someone who has just read it. Often, they have their own story, of placing a parent in a memory unit or caring for a mother who became ill when they were young. There are very few people whose lives have not been touched by something like this.

You can order The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience from independent booksellers everywhere. It’s also available at public libraries in Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Los Gatos. 

Kathleen Canrinus enjoys attending book clubs in person and on Zoom to participate in conversations about The Lady with the Crown. Contact her at: theladywiththecrown at gmail dot com

Helen Gibbons worked for many years as a science writer and editor in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. Highlights included blogging from an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean and editing the newsletter Sound Waves. Now retired, she enjoys reading, singing, walking, and writing an occasional article as a USGS volunteer.

Ever Rodriguez / La Feroz Press

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
Ever Rodriguez and Gabriela Valencia in the studio of La Feroz Press.
Ever Rodriguez and Gabriela Valencia in the studio of La Feroz Press.

Ever Rodriguez was born and raised in Mexico and has lived in California since the early 1990s. He writes prose and poetry on themes related to his experience, including immigration, biculturalism, music, language and nature. Ever is a pragmatic writer for whom the common becomes the special as a way to contrast the abject against the normal.  His education includes a B.A. in Spanish Literature and a M.A. in Library & Information Science from San José State University. He has worked for the Stanford University Libraries for the past 25 years. Ever’s letterpress studio, La Feroz Press, focuses on handmade editions with original texts and translations. His work often has the intention of amplifying the voices and concerns of his marginalized community.

Although we live a short bike ride apart, we conducted this interview via email while sheltering-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whirligig: What is the history of La Feroz Press?

Ever: La Feroz Press officially started with this name in January of 2019. We had been working under the name of Taller de Tinta y Texto since 2015, which was the time when our printing press project really took shape. It is wise to say here that when one has the intuition or the wish to do something, one has to follow up with at least one decisive action that would move further towards that direction to really get started. 

For me, the decisive action that put me on the printing track was taking a letterpress class. This allowed me not only to learn the basics of letterpress printing, but it also laid out the challenges I would need to overcome in terms of space and equipment, and it put me in touch with the printer and bookmaking culture and communities that would inspire me to fully embrace this activity.

Out of such initial inspiration I was able to create a space for myself at home where I could potentially house a printing press and other essential equipment. For years our one-car garage was filled with unused furniture, souvenirs and unwanted items, so one day I just decided to get rid of all of it and remodel the space to make room for a printing studio.  

Once I had the space, I started itching to find me a press. At first, I was looking for a hand press, but those are as rare as they are expensive, and I even started looking at the possibilities of making my own wooden hand press. I figured that if Gutenberg’s contemporaries were able to build those presses without the tools we have today, I should be able to build one press half as good. I found and bought a book entitled The Common Press, by Harris and Sisson, which has drawing plans and notes about the construction of the Franklin hand press, owned by the Smithsonian Institution. But I deviated from that adventure for a different alternative.

In January of 2015, I found a small press for sale online. The press was not ideal, and it was certainly nowhere near the Franklin hand press, but it was an inexpensive alternative that would get me started. So I bought it and the next day I drove to Los Angeles to pick up a midsize (14 x 24) Morgan Line-O-Scribe proofing press. This was the very first piece of equipment that I owned, and it came with a little bit of awful metal and wood type, but that satisfied the itching.

I experimented with that proofing press for about one year, and then Matt Kelsey—printer and owner of Camino Press, in Saratoga, California—told me about a Chandler & Price (C&P) 10×15 platen press that somebody was selling in Gilroy. I decided to buy that press, and a few printer friends helped me pick it up, bring it to my garage and install it. Mark Knudsen and Kim Hamilton made beautiful wooden feed boards and a treadle for it, and other printer friends gave me some tools and made me feel welcome to letterpress printing. 

The acquisition of this C&P press gave me added impetus to get more serious about letterpress. I acquired both new and used metal type and other essential tools and items through friends and referrals, and then I started to get more adventurous with printing and designing other things beyond postcards. All along, my wife—who I call Gaby—had been supportive about my new adventure, and I think that when she saw me purchasing that big, old C&P press and hauling it into our garage, she realized that my temporary craziness had turned into long-term seriousness. I think she was happy but surprised and concerned all at once. Once Gaby realized that these old devices and tools were here to stay, and she saw how excited I was about them, she got excited as well and started making lemonade with my lemons.


A couple of years passed, and in 2017 our friends Linda Stinchfield and Kim Hamilton gave us a beautiful Griffin etching press, thus helping me to expand my horizons to allow for more and better relief printing, which now includes linocuts and occasional woodcuts. Finally in June of 2019, I was lucky to bid on and win a Vandercook SP15 press at a local auction and that is now part of La Feroz Press.

By then I had taken several letterpress printing classes and I even earned core letterpress diplomas from the San Francisco Center for the Book on both the platen and the cylinder press. So far that is the story of La Feroz Press, which is still in the making.


Jan Rindfleisch

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Jan Rindfleisch

Jan Rindfleisch is an artist, educator, writer, curator and cultural worker. She was the executive director of the Euphrat Museum at De Anza College in Cupertino for 32 years. During that time Rindfleisch laid the groundwork for an engaged and inclusive museum environment by continuously tapping the diverse local voices of Silicon Valley. Rindfleisch continues her work as a community builder with Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community, a history of the art of the greater South Bay area from the post-Mission era artifacts of our First Nation peoples to the artists and activists that have made the western/southern half of the Bay Area the rich and vibrant scene it is today.

Rindfleisch has a BA in Physics from Purdue University and an MFA from San José State University. Her awards include: Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence (2014); San José City Hall Exhibits Committee (2006–2013); The ABBY Awards (2010); Silicon Valley Arts & Business Awards; Arts Leadership Award; Santa Clara County Woman of Achievement, (1989); Leadership Vision Award in the Arts, Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce (1993); Civic Service Award, City of Cupertino, Cultural Arts, and the Asian Heritage Council Arts Award (1988).

Whirligig: What was the impetus for you to write this book?

Roots and Offshoots cover image

Jan: I am one of those people that love to question boundaries. I started thinking: How did we get past the exclusion in the art world in the monochromatic 1970s, which didn’t reflect the breakthroughs of the 1960s, such as women’s rights and civil rights? How did we take that early cultural landscape, break new ground, and build new forms for the future? After decades as an arts museum director and a lifetime career as an artist, author, community advocate, and educator with an earlier background in the sciences, I decided to put some of the explorations and findings together.

My book and project Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community begins with an essay entitled The Blossoming of Silicon Valley’s Arts Community and a profile of artist/activist Ruth Tunstall Grant. A Spiral Through Time follows threads between the ancestral Muwekma Ohlone, Juana Briones in the 1800s, Marjorie Eaton and her arts colony in the 1900s, and artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood today. Over a period of years of research and writing, the book grew to about twenty profiles and two additional guest essays; one by Maribel Alvarez about MACLA, Doing that Latino Art Thing, and the other by Raj Jayadev about Silicon Valley De-Bug, The Anatomy of an ‘Un- Organization.

There are people in Silicon Valley connected with incredible history, but their story isn’t being told. Their experiences tell a different story of who we are. Origins of organizations are often forgotten or rewritten, and the originators erased. How can one or a few names stand for an organization/period/idea and the rest be forgotten? How does this erasure affect our view of ourselves as creators and as being worthy of judging or promoting art, or taking a larger role in our community? I wanted to add some of these missing pieces that contribute to a richer story of Silicon Valley’s art scene. Frustration with systems can be a motivating force. Another big personal motivation was gratitude. This book is a way to thank so many people who paved the way and with whom I worked.

Whirligig: The Bay Area is deeply rich in terms of cultural diversity and creative output. How did you determine which groups to represent, likely knowing that you could not include them all? Who was left out? Will there be a second volume?

Jan: The book is not a survey of the South Bay Area scene. I wanted to tell the story of the trailblazers who truly made a difference in Silicon Valley, and to provide broader historical context for their experience. A major/shared motivator was to share with the reader how the artists/activists in this book enrich us personally. The artists/activists open us to the art of daily life, and to the artist within each of us. They get us to examine ourselves, to question our lives, and to think freely. They inspire us to dream and imagine and effectuate change—to build connections (not walls!) and enliven our communities.