For Annie~~Eleven Years.
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy.” ~~Terry Tempest Williams
The Wyoming Arts Council’s annual conference came to Jackson Hole this year, and attendees were treated to a closing keynote by Terry Tempest Williams. She was intimately present, and if you were lucky enough to hear her that afternoon you’ll carry the occasion in your heart a long while.
Williams had thought to read from her latest book, “When Women Were Birds.” Instead, she chose to address a question put to her by the Wyoming Art Council’s Karen Stewart: “How have the arts affected your life?”
Our cavernous conference room became an intimate campfire gathering. A place to hear stories, a place to have your heart stirred. Williams’ childhood summers were spent in Wyoming; in remembering those family traditions and travels, Williams said that Wyoming winds, time and the freedom of open spaces that create open minds shaped her. Days and nights spent curled up Mardy Murie’s feet, inhaling the wisdom of ages, breathing in stories, creating memory.
A trail of Wyoming art winds its way through Williams’ life. Each of her books began and ended in Wyoming. “Refuge” took its first breaths at UCross. Williams spoke of discovering works by legendary Wyoming artists like Jackson and Rungius. Her climate-themed collaboration with Jackson artists Ben Roth and Felicia Resor, “Council of Pronghorn,” elicited deep emotion (Roth drove the installation to NYC in a van, arriving just as one of the biggest storms that city has known was preparing to land. Roth had never been to NYC, and he found the streets empty. He was, said Williams, a messenger.) She reminded us that the best literary art is local; Hemingway, Faulkner—it’s all about place. We migrate, but ultimately we are a place-based species. Wyoming artist Neltje’s fluid brushstrokes inspired Williams to sweep her own sumi brushstrokes across blank paper before beginning any book.
Literature will always matter, Williams said, and art has always been waking us up. Early in her writing career, a mentor encouraged Williams to “sharpen her writing pencil,” to boldly speak about the essential nature of beauty and art in our lives.
“My wish for art education is that it continue to be taught. Arts create wholesome citizens, and we should weave art into other education disciplines and institutions. Conversation and the arts can lead to policy, and government should support the arts with no strings attached, no censorship. Trust artists; what they create is part of the roots of free speech,” Williams told the audience.
The Wyoming Arts Council blogged on Williams’ “Weather Report” project, a series of meetings Williams took with UW students and students around the state gathering and sharing stories of what it is like to live in Wyoming; to talk, as Williams described it this week, about “What keeps you up at night? What is your own ‘weather report?’ “
As Boomerang reporter Eve Newman wrote: “The energy boom in Wyoming means watching development taking over open spaces. It means jobs that keep families together. It means oil and gas executives feeling vilified. It means dead cottonwoods across ranch land.
Every Wyoming resident has a story about living in Wyoming. For many, those stories have to do with the latest boom cycle and the unprecedented change that’s affecting the land and the people. For others, their stories are about displacement, loss, love, racism, isolation, tolerance or opportunity.”
Newman also quoted Williams as saying that she believed students were able to bear witness to the power of stories, and heard the force of their own voices.
At the Aspen Institute, Williams participated in the Story Swap Project, an international interaction of citizens telling one another their stories, swapping roles, and building “bridges of understanding.”
Throughout her WAC keynote, Williams’ voice captured our hearts and minds. Throughout, she remained emotional, excited, open, receiving. We received. I know no other writers as eminent as Williams possessing an instinct to share so unselfishly, or who provide such lasting gifts inside an hour’s lecture. We are grateful.
“Once upon a time, when women were birds….”