Keynote speech for the Kentucky Arts Council’s 25th Anniversary Celebration Conference – CONNECTIONS IN THE ARTS
December 7, 1995
It is my very great pleasure to come give this address. For it was this very organization, The Kentucky Arts Council, that saved me, as a young Kentuckian, throwing out a veritable lifeline that would pull me forever into the safe harbor of the arts, keeping me away from the dangerous shoals of a career in advertising.
Not that I could actually have had a career in advertising, of course. But I thought I could. I mean, I hoped I could. I mean, after I realized I was unemployable, advertising seemed my only hope. How had I learned I was unemployable? By barely surviving a succession of jobs, where as a serious claustrophobic, I was horrified to learn that employers expected me to come in at a certain time in the morning and stay there all day. Thank my lucky stars, at just exactly the right moment, the Kentucky Arts Council appeared, and here I am today.
Before I begin, please forgive the forgive the death-obsessed, Pentecostal nature of the title of this speech. I’m always asked for the title months before I’ve actually written the speech. So when I get around to writing the speech, in this case, last week, I have as little idea what this title might mean as you do.
But I suppose Throw Out the Lifeline might have something to do with the fact that right now I’m working on a musical about Aimee Semple McPherson, the American visionary/healer who one day in 1926 walked into the sea and disappeared. Or it could have to do with that Stevie Smith poem I’ve always loved, the one about the woman out in the water with her arm in the air. I wasn’t waving, she says, I was drowning. Or I guess, when asked for a title, I could’ve just been obsessing about how I was going to die, which I’ve always been convinced would be by driving off a bridge and drowning.
OR. OR. Throw Out the Lifeline could be what I imagined Nash Cox said to Jim Edgy all those years ago, just before she hired me. For I was sinking all right. I was drowning in a sea of misconceptions about what an artist was, what an artist did, and who could play a part in the cultural life of our time. At the time, I thought of artists as a rarefied group of very special individuals. Like the best club in the world. And the hardest to get into. I didn’t know I was already in. And I wouldn’t have believed it, if the Kentucky Arts Council hadn’t told me so.
To go back to the early seventies. I had a degree in philosophy, which meant I could do nothing. And I had a teaching certificate, and two years of experience teaching severely disturbed children in a state mental hospital. My future was not, as they say, bright. I had transferred to a job teaching gifted children, hoping to cheer myself up, hoping maybe THAT was where I belonged, but I had gotten involved in a huge argument with the director of the program about which biography of George Washington Carver we should read to the kids. And I had lost that argument. And I had decided not to return in the fall. So I was deep in despair. I was looking at the ads for advertising trainees. I had no idea what to do.
Yes, I wanted to write for the theatre. Yes, I had won all kinds of writing competitions. But I did not believe it was possible to be a woman playwright from Kentucky. The reason I thought this, was that in the early seventies, there weren’t any. There were writers, all right, wonderful writers, a few of them women, but those writers were all from the mountains. So naturally, I thought being an artist was a matter of where you were born. If you were born in the mountains, you could be an artist. If you were born in Louisville, you had to go into advertising.
Further, I thought that to be an artist, you had to be born into a artistic family. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to have a father who founded the New Yorker, or an Aunt who owned the New York Review of Books. I thought you had to live down the road from Wendell Berry. I thought you had to already know Harriet Arnow.
I thought, if you were an artist, the Arts Council would already know about you and already be giving you grants and already be helping you get in touch with your audience, so I would never have presumed to call and invite myself over. But one day – just to prove that all luck isn’t bad – one day the esteemed Arts Council, in the person of Nash Cox, called me. “Who did you say this was?” I asked? She laughed, and then asked if I would come talk to her about being Filmmaker in the Schools. “But I don’t know anything about film,” I said. “Oh, that’s O.K.,” she said. “We’ll send you to New York to study. Would you think about it?”
Did I say yes? How fast did I say yes? I met Nash. We talked, and as I listened to her, I felt the door opening. The door I had always been looking for. I had no idea what Nash saw in me, but when I asked her about it later, she said she just knew I was going to do something, and she wanted to watch.
And so I went to work for the Arts Commission in l972, and stayed until 1976. And in the beginning, I felt like such an imposter. I wondered when they were going to find out I didn’t know anything and start laughing. Or worse. Sometimes I lied and said I had read certain poets I hadn’t read, or seen certain films I hadn’t seen. But if they knew I was lying, they didn’t tell. They simply kept listening for what I was doing, and pretty soon, I was actually doing things, the kind of things an artist does. I was actually making films with kids, actually working in the National Association of Media Educators, actually writing a big grant proposal to put artists in the schools, and then for two years, actually administering that grant. I had a new life. I knew a lot of people in the arts in Kentucky. I participated in conferences held by the Kentucky Arts Commission, and at one particular conference, I found myself actually walking the slippery ledge that leads around and behind…Cumberland Falls.
If you suddenly have the feeling that we’ve been headed toward this story the whole time, you’re right. This story is why I’m giving this speech.
It was just after lunch that day, in the summer of 1973, and Jim Edgy, who was then the Director of the Arts Commission, and Steve Todd, a fellow filmmaker in the schools, and I were all feeling restless. We had all heard that there was a path that led you back behind the falls. We had also heard it was closed, prohibited, extremely dangerous, etc. etc. So we had to go. And we set off without telling anyone.
Down the walk we went to the overlook, then on along the edge of the cliff to the falls. We were feeling so calm, so…adventurous and superior. We were so cool. Even when we reached the huge barbed-wire gate, marked with a big sign prohibiting any kind of access any time for anybody, even then we were still cool . And even when we saw a man coming up from the other side of the gate – having just been behind the falls, his shirt ripped in four places, his face covered in blood…Even then, we were cool. Oh sure, he fell. But we wouldn’t.
So we climbed the fence and made our way, single file, along what could only be described as a LEDGE, being very careful not to look down at the churning water and rocks some 200 feet below. Closer and closer we came to the falls, the spray now soaking us. And the ledge began to slope down in its final approach to the falls. We could see where the path disappeared behind the falls. But we couldn’t get there yet. Well, I couldn’t.
Steve and Jim were both taller than I was. And there was this…drop-off, I guess you could call it, a space between rocks along the ledge, a space too large for me to step across. Steve had gone first, then Jim. But there I was. Stuck. I wasn’t about to go back, but how could I go on? Well. Can you hear my heart pounding? Can you hear the billions of gallons of water crashing over the falls about twenty feet…over there? Good.
Jim saw my predicament and held out his hand. “You’ll have to jump,” he said. Well. I knew it was stupid and dangerous. But it was also thrilling and necessary, so I did it. I jumped. And I did not fall into the river and drown. I landed quite near Jim, but without pushing him over either, and we continued around the jagged corner and..
Arrived…in the dark, safe, strangely dry chamber directly behind the falls. We sat down cross-legged, and stared out at the falls. And said things like “Oh my God,” and “Wow,” and “Oh man,” for about a minute. And then we fell silent and just watched. And listened, of course.
And suddenly, it didn’t look like we were behind a falls at all, but rather inside a drum of water. From inside the drum, it looked like the same water flowed eternally around and around – taking the same rippling path, making the same patterns.
After a while, we started to talk again, and strangely enough, our topic was the nature and purpose of art. It may have been the most high-minded, serious conversation I’ve ever had. Maybe we were afraid we’d all die on the way back from the falls, and we wanted our last conversation to be a good one. Maybe we were high on fear, or were in the presence of ancient spirits, I don’t know. But here is what we said as we sat behind the falls.
The purpose of art is to express what we have in common, the life that we have in common, the life we could live in common if we could just escape our skin, our time, and the particularities of our experience. People who have strong religious beliefs can escape their individuality through rituals and rites, we said. But for those without faith (as we proudly claimed to be at the time), for us non believers, art is our only way out, our only way in, our only way back to where we really live – in our senses, in our bodies, in our connections with each other. And by each other, I mean those with whom we have shared a victory, a defeat, or a purpose – regardless of whether we have shared a house or a bed, or even a century.
Somebody, I think it was me, said that art asked the question, “Do we have a common language, you and I?” And Steve said he thought art invented humans so it would have a way of passing itself along. Then Jim said it was time to go back to the conference for the session on ticket sales. So we stood up and looked around, knowing this was the very definition of a once in a lifetime experience.
The return trip was quite uneventful, except that when we reached the barbed wire gate, climbed over it and headed inland again, we got the giggles. We laughed like fools, like crazy people. We laughed til we cried, over nothing, over having survived our ordeal. We had taken a big, completely irresponsible risk and we had made it back safely. Except that none of us ever spoke about it again, not to each other anyway.
Then, two years later, on a day when Jim and I weren’t there, a day that must have been much scarier, Steve Todd killed himself. Nash Cox called to tell me. And in my sadness over his death, the strangest protest kept going through my mind, as if I were arguing with him. “But Steve, we sat behind the falls together, we made it back. We’re going to be O.K. How could you kill yourself? Why would you kill yourself?”
And eight years later, Steve’s death would be one of the suicides I would try to understand by writing ‘Night, Mother. I would try to save him, and the others, and myself, by saying in the play I see you. Grab hold. I’ve got you. Steve would not hear my offer of help. But others would. Other people would stop me in lobbies all over the world and say, “Thank you very much, my sister killed herself last year.”
So in the same way that the Arts Council threw out the lifeline to save me, my plays and musicals are lifelines I have thrown out, to anyone who needs them. And I can’t begin to count the evenings when I have grabbed the lifeline thrown to me by someone else – another artist, a friend, or someone in a dream, a Mozart, a Rilke, a Robert Penn Warren, a Jean Ritchie, a Lily Tomlin.
It’s so simple. Art saves people. It saves us from our singularity, from our separateness. Art both documents our differences and saves us from them. Art is how a culture records its life, how it poses questions to the next generation, and how it is remembered.
Art is our common language. It is the connection we have to each other. It is how we say what it has felt like to be alive in our time. It is how we examine what has mattered to us, how we study the things that have held together, and mourn the things that have fallen apart.
Two of the things that have not fallen apart, in my experience, are my love of Kentucky, and my attachment to the Kentucky Arts Council. So let me conclude by thanking you for this connection, for this lifeline thrown to me so many years ago. Let me celebrate our connection in the conversations we will have over the next few days. And let me hope that the storehouse where you keep these lifelines is still full, because young artists need them. And we need our young artists. More than anything in the world. Let me say that again. We need our young artists more than anything in the world.
Thank you very much.