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10 Questions For Sally Taylor

Photo: Heidi Legg

Sally Taylor is the daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon, and not surprisingly, a singer-songwriter. But she is also an arts entrepreneur and founder of Consenses, a program that brings artists together to interpret and express one another’s artwork, each in their own medium, in the vein of a game of “Telephone.” Consenses has developed a multidisciplinary arts curriculum for the classroom setting in which students focus on a different medium as a catalyst for their own creations. Taylor has collaborated with MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. on a year-long exhibit, in the Kidspace gallery, which features local fifth-grade students whose art inspired the music of Carly Simon, Natasha Bedingfield, James Taylor, Chris Stills and 62 artists from around the world.

“Come To Your Senses: Art To See, Smell, Hear, Taste And Touch” will launch with “An Evening With Sally Taylor and Friends,” an intimate concert on June 23 featuring acoustic performances by Carly Simon, Ben Taylor and others. We spoke with Sally about the Berkshires, Consenses, and her thoughts about art and life.

1. What is your first memory of the Berkshires?
I traveled to the Berkshires in my mind, years before I actually set foot here, through my father’s song “Sweet Baby James” in which he sang: ‘Oh the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frostin’ with 10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go.’ I pictured a man in the cab of a tan pickup truck, steam on his breath, steam from the coffee in a Styrofoam cup in his lap. I’m looking out the front window from just behind his ear. The landscape is covered with the most breathtaking, untouched white snow that sparkles like a billion paparazzi in the early morning sun. I feel the resolve the man feels, setting out on the first leg of a long journey, his radio and his coffee his copilots. I’ve felt that feeling many times in my life since my introduction to that lyric, the excited dauntingness of a long drive, cross country, alone. Excited but nervous, lonely but free. That feeling, that bold, brave, courageous first step into my future is my relationship to the Berkshires.

2. How often do you come here, and what do you like to do — when you’re not working on the Consenses exhibit and concert for MASS MoCA?
I come up about twice a year to visit my dad, his wife Kim and my half-brothers Rufus and Henry. I wish I could make it up more.

3. Why did you stop touring, and how involved are you in making music these days?
I stopped touring in 2003 right after my husband, Dean [Bragonier], and I got engaged. The road is a hard place to have a relationship from, I think. I still write a little here and there, just because it’s part of my mind and soul’s digestive process, but Consenses is currently where my creativity meets the road.

4. Has your son inherited any of your family’s musical talents?
Man, he loves to sing and dance. He’s got some killer rhythm, and he’s constantly making up little songs with me about our everyday activities just like I did/do with my mom and dad.

5. How familiar were you with MASS MoCA prior to this project, and what has your experience been like to work on the installation and concert there?
I LOVE MASS MOCA. I’d been up only twice before meeting up with Joe Thompson and Laura Thompson, and since the first time I walked into that space I thought, ‘Man, I hope one day my work can live here!’

6. How will the concert on June 23 illustrate the Interpretive Chain process?
We’ve got all the artists from one of the chains: the student artist whose painting started the chain (which is called “Monster Finally Gets a Date”), the musician, the dancers, the poet, the visual artist, the perfumer and the set designer. Our plan is to reenact that chain, in the vein of a game of “Telephone” where the painting is projected on a screen, then a song begins, soon after the dancers appear, next the poem is read followed by a projection of the visual art, the perfume will be provided in the performance brochure and finally the set design will be projected on the screen. If you’re thinking ‘That’s going to be quite a lot of production for 1 song!’ I’d say, ‘You got that right, sister/brother!’

7. What’s been the most moving interpretation you’ve witnessed in the interpretive chains you’ve seen, and why did it affect you so deeply?
One of the students from Clarksburg Elementary who reacted to the word “Fear” painted a very dark black and navy-blue image [right]. There were black and grey figures with red and white eyes. He said, ‘If “Fear” were a color it would be cold black darkness. It would be heavy and bitter and smell like smoke. This painting is of what lurks in the dark.’

I gave this painting to Natasha Bedingfield, never mentioning it was a painting from a fifth grader or that it was in reaction to the word “Fear.” Her interpretation ended up being this amazing song. In the painting, she saw the universe. She said, ‘In this painting, I saw the night sky with people representing the stars. The message was that we’re all the same and yet all different and we’re desperately trying to get our light to shine through… to mean something to someone. When we see starlight, we’re seeing light that left a star millions of years ago. It takes so long for the light to travel to us. That light has to be so brave to leave that star and go out into the cold dark space, never knowing if anyone ever will see it. If anyone millions of billions of years in the future will ever receive it or love or even appreciate it. People are like stars, we’re doing all that work to grow up and to shine our light outward and who knows if anyone will ever see it or appreciate it. Every artist… every person, we all have to put out there what’s in our hearts and it takes a lot of courage because it can take a lot of time to be seen, to be taken seriously and there might be so many clouds in the way that we are only ever getting negative feedback, but we have to spread our light and have faith that it will make it through the darkness and make a difference to someone.’

She equated starlight to the light in children’s eyes, acknowledging the extreme bravery it takes to shine our light out as we journey through childhood into adolescence, hoping that we make a difference and find connection. I was moved to tears by this interpretation and how it fit so beautifully with the student’s version of fear. The message in both is that the dark/the future/that which we cannot see or understand is scary. The song reminds us that in the face of our fear, we can reach out with faith and curiosity instead of shutting down. We ended up naming this chain of art “Courage.” 

8. With all of the work you’ve done on Consenses — developing curriculum, working with kids, your TED talk — you have emerged as a very inspiring educator. What has that been like, considering your personal history as a dyslexic student who was labeled “learning disabled?”
My mom never gave me the “disabled” language to see myself through that so many dyslexic young people get today. That language does a hundred times more damage to the dyslexic than having a unique processing ability. The message my mom gave me was, ‘If you’re dyslexic then you’re definitely our daughter!’ and ‘You think differently, like us!’ So, I felt confident that, like my parents, I’d find a way to my own success and that like my parents, I’d have to make some of it up as I went because there wasn’t going to be a clear path through school. I think having someone to identify with, whether it’s a parent, a teacher or a role model, is vital. My husband, like me, is dyslexic and so is our son and we couldn’t be more delighted! Dean has set up an organization called NoticeAbility that creates strength-based learning curricula for dyslexic students and Consenses Curriculum has become one of his four platforms for helping the next generation see their super powers as dyslexics. 

9. The last line in your TED Talk is “When we fall and see there is no ground, we are flying.” How does that relate to Consenses?
Trungpa Rimpoche has a quote that goes “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.” — Chögyam Trungpa

This is a metaphor for life. We’re born falling, having no idea where we came from or where we’re going or why. This is frankly terrifying. In our panic, in midair, I believe we try to build our own metaphoric parachutes out of thoughts and stories and belief systems and feelings and whatever narratives our families happened to pass down. We patch and repatch these parachutes throughout life, never thinking to look down at what might be coming up to hit us. But if we do, and there is no ground, then we can reconsider our falling and reimagine it as flying. Experienced through the lens of ‘there is no ground and therefore I’m flying,’ we can see our stories, our truths, our beliefs for what they truly are: ART.

10. What’s next, for you and for Consenses, after the MASS MoCA exhibit and concert?
I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s gonna be good!

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/11/18 at 10:51 AM • Permalink