A Greater Boston native, I'm a professional dancer and award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, art, and graphic design. I'm co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company (Boston, MA), art director of Art New England magazine, senior contributor for The Arts Fuse, and am the Boston area dance critic for the international Fjord Review. I recently completed a one-year term as co-chair of the Arlington Cultural Council, and am regularly hired as an arts advocate to speak at events ranging from legislative assemblies at the State House to entrepreneurial panels for students at Mount Holyoke College. This blog serves as a behind-the-scenes peek into the life and journal of an interdisciplinary artist. Learn more at merliguerra.com or luminariumdance.org, and thank you for reading my thoughts on setting the visual and performing arts into motion.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Red is the color of music

Childhood is a funny thing. For its inhabitants, it seems to go on indefinitely, yet in truth, it’s gone in an instant. Moments we take for granted as children later become cognitive snapshots we second-guess as adults—Was his mustache really that scratchy? Was the pool really that deep?—yet regardless, they leave a lasting impression, an invisible part of ourselves that impacts our lives moving forward, be they realistic memories or those warped through rose-colored glasses.

But when your cousin, Becky, one decade older than you openly shares her childhood memories of the grandmother you both shared, and they match your own nearly word for word, you know that your memories are not only accurate, but that the woman they depict really did, and does continue to, impact your life significantly.

When I think of my father’s mother, my Noni, I think of the color blue. Perhaps it’s because of the blue kitchen in which so many feasts were created and multiple conversations shouted across roomfuls of relatives (Many of whom I later learned weren’t relatives at all! But were always warmly treated as such.); maybe it’s because of the blue water of the above-ground swimming pool my cousins and I basically lived in during the summers (and that I accidentally nearly drowned my brother in, as I tried to teach him how to swim!); or maybe it’s simply due to the color of Noni and Pop Pop’s house—the feeling of sheer excitement upon seeing that blue exterior as we pulled into the packed driveway, and the accompanying sadness upon watching it (and my waving grandparents) gradually disappear as we left for home. 

Pieces: Window Pane #2. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

Blue was the color of happiness, of a warm embrace, of being passed from aunt to uncle to who-knows-who; blue was the color of the carpeted stairs that Erin, Jack, and I would slide down until we had rug burns or hit the floor a bit too hard; blue was the color of the ever-popular tacky backdrops in our annual school portraits that (although deeply embarrassing to look at) were always proudly displayed among dozens of other photos, old and new, on the wall above the living room sofa. And in later years (when I lived with her in the summer of 2009), blue was the color of my Noni’s nightgown, as we sat on that sofa: her, sassily teasing me and offering me food to the point of giggling and winking at me when I’d inevitably give in; me, sassing her back to make her laugh, and answering that evening’s three repeating questions with varying answers to keep us both entertained (as by then, her Alzheimer’s had truly begun to set in, especially in the evenings).

But red—red was the color of music.

Pieces: Window Pane #9. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

As a lifelong professional-level pianist and organist, my Noni played every mass, every wedding, every funeral, all while teaching quite literally every child in “Western Mass” weekly piano lessons from the small music room in their home. Family gatherings would naturally spur impromptu duets between Pop Pop on bass or guitar and Noni on piano, with a Pied-Piper flock of grand- and great-grandchildren huddled round and adding the occasional spirited (yet out of tune) chord on the other end of the keys, which was always welcomed with laughter and delight. Between my Italian grandmother and Portuguese grandfather, food was certainly a huge part of every visit (You could show up unannounced and somehow there would undoubtedly be a roast chicken in the oven!), yet I would argue that despite every DIY Network show saying “the kitchen is the heart of every household,” here, at the Guerra’s, it was the music room that was the heart. While living with Noni years later, I’d awake (far too early) to sounds of Mozart and Beethoven—at times, romantic and passionate, at others fiery and complex—but always red. Red as the blood in her veins, the blood we share; red as the dress adorned by the pianist in the painting opposite her in the room. Red was, and continues to be, the color of music.

Noni and Pop Pop, assorted images.

Fast-forward to 2017: As the year started, I was already knee-deep in my We Create project, having begun my work as one of its selected 2016-17 cohort artists in September. I was honored to be chosen for this project run by Marsha Parrilla, Director of Danza Orgánica, and although I ultimately found the 2017 We Create Festival to be largely flawed in its execution, the piece I created through this process turned out to be quite poignant in more ways than one.

Through April, I continued to research and develop my initial concept: delving into the cohort’s 2016-17 theme of “hidden stories” by creating an art installation recognizing those with physical and mental disabilities. As my work unfolded, I found myself narrowing in on the specific story of my Noni’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and society’s habit of tucking Alzheimer’s patients away—glancing by them only on the surface, unaware of the beautiful, multifaceted lives hidden within.

After many early sketches and conceptual notes, I eventually landed on the concept of peering through a window (itself, taken from the wall of my childhood bedroom, since knocked down…luckily, like me, my dad keeps everything!), to find layers of overlapping memories (some complete, some missing sections, and others seemingly looping on repeat), as this is often what Alzheimer’s does to the brain.

Pieces: The making of. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

The construction process was difficult, as I knew I wanted each layer to consist of varying opacities, to blur into one another once eventually backlit by a simple table lamp. Scanning old photographs, I spent hours delicately taping tissue paper to cardstock, successfully printing one image, only to jam my printer on the next. By the time I reached the textual memories I planned to incorporate, I’d gotten a bit smarter (so I thought) by purchasing semi-opaque plastic film, only to learn the hard way that ink takes way longer to dry on plastic than it does on pulp! Ink-smudged hands and a healthy portion of swearing later, I embarked on the most tedious task yet: intricately hanging each image with thread onto thin wooden dowels acting as a trellis above.

Pieces: The making of. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

Setting the full installation up in my tiny Boston living room, I was so pleased. Visually, the lamp, window, and images of Noni reminded me vividly of every evening visit on my way to and from Mount Holyoke College as an undergraduate, peering through the living room window to find her doing her crossword by lamplight. Symbolically, I was putting into physical form the age-old saying “Eyes are the window to the soul,” while the lamp served as the human spirit—still bright and beaming behind all those layers of misaligned memories.

Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

My intention was to place an empty chair in front of the installation, encouraging audience members to sit and peer through the window panes, piecing together bits of the puzzle and learning about this beautiful multi-faceted woman by simply taking the time to do so. The goal was to speak to Alzheimer’s (and society’s treatment of the elderly) as a whole, reminding viewers that simply because an older individual might be slow to respond, it is not for a lack of knowledge, as they have years more experience than we, ourselves, have known. There are stories there, and when given the time, the patience, to peer through those eyes, we too can piece together the puzzles of these memories, and construct a truer image of who this person is, not was.

Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

 I will keep this next section brief, as I do not want to dwell on my negative experience with the We Create process, but its outcome is key to the full experience of my installation, which I had titled Pieces. Explaining to Marsha just how delicate and complex an installation this was, I inquired if I should be setting it up during tech on Wednesday, or setting it up directly before opening night on Friday, as I wanted to be sure it wasn’t damaged in between. (My project was the only one that was an installation piece; the rest were various performance art works.) After being told Wednesday was definitely the day to do it, I carefully and lovingly spent a full two hours setting up the piece, complete with the chair, a lamp from our home, and a small write-up on the work.

Two days later, Sean and I entered the space to a bustling audience, a clearly lit stage, and—to my shock—no installation. I felt my heart plummet, as if I’d misplaced Noni herself somewhere in the room. Where could it be?? With Sean’s help, we eventually found it: literally shoved into a corner, the chair gone, the lamp unplugged, and several of my delicate tissue paper memories torn.

Delicately installing Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

I was heart-broken, as my mind instantly replayed one of my “bad” visits with Noni earlier that year. I had shown up at her center to find her, and ten others, lined up along the wall in their wheelchairs waiting to be wheeled into the dining hall, and while I completely understand that the staff can only be in so many places at once, my Noni was at the end of the row, tucked around the corner, anxious and confused. I tried to calm her; tried to explain where she was and where she was heading next. I tried to show her photos of my parents; tried to remind her I was “the dancer” as she always called me (she regularly “auditioned” for my dance company while gliding through her kitchen in later years), yet nothing worked. Over and over she repeated, while crying, “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry I don’t know you. I’m so sorry I don’t remember these people. I’m so sorry I don’t remember who I am.” I held it together until the staff came to wheel her to lunch, then sat in my car and sobbed—not because she didn’t remember me, but because she was apologizing for forgetting herself.

It was amazing to me how the simple act of wheeling her into an empty hallway with no one around, no reminders of her family (photos, music), and no one to talk to, had led to that light briefly going out. And now here I was, staring at my forgotten installation—an installation whose purpose was to actively remind the public not to bypass the elderly by leaving them alone in a hallway (but to sit with them and learn from them), literally pushed aside, forgotten, and abandoned. As I hurriedly reset the now damaged work with Sean, the symbolism of this incident was lost on neither of us. (I later learned that the performance space serves as an after-school program for kids during the day, hence the installation was moved for “safety” reasons. My instinct to arrive early on opening night had been the correct one.)

Pieces: Window Pane #7. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.

As we left that night, taking Pieces home with us, a gust of wind hit us moments before placing the installation inside the car, causing all of my intricately threaded memories to instantly knot and entwine, as if permanently damaged. It seemed beyond hope to untangle it, nor did I know of another event I’d be showcasing it at down the road, yet I still felt compelled to make it right. As if performing a ritual, I spent hours upon hours carefully unbraiding each strand until all were back in their rightful place. I packaged it up for safe travel to our next destination, and it hasn’t been opened since.

Photo: Quincy Guerra Hepburn, 2020.

Fast-forward one last time to now: mid-April 2020. Never in my wildest thoughts would I have known that the entire world would be in quarantine; that my Noni (despite the staff taking incredible precautions) would be diagnosed with COVID-19; and that my family would be visiting her exactly as my installation had portrayed: spending time with her by peering through a window, sharing memories, and enjoying that precious light emanating from her soul as flickers of memories, her signature humor, and boundless love glow from the other side of the glass.

As I write this, I am trapped in New Jersey, whose quarantine is strictly enforced, and beside me (by pure chance), among all my disheveled art projects since moving into our new home, is the damaged, yet carefully preserved installation. I cannot drive up to stand outside the window; and even if I could, I cannot indulge in the comforting “blue” of that warm embrace; but there is one thing I can hold onto: This past December, not long after her 95th birthday, I visited Noni on the second floor of her building. Perhaps my hours of installation detanglement were finally paying off, because from the moment I entered the room, Noni and I shared the most incredibly lucid, loving, and joyous 2.5 hour visit (with poor Sean and Banksy waiting patiently in the car). “Where’s Sean?” she would ask, “He’s just so handsome.” “He has a bad cold, Noni!” I replied, “He didn’t want to take a chance and make you sick.” “But he’s so handsome,” she insisted (with a twinkle in her eye), “I’ll take that chance!”

Photo: Quincy Guerra Hepburn, 2020.

And so we sat together, chatting away like old times, showing her photos and videos from our summer trip to Scotland, photos of hikes in New Jersey during the fall, videos (on her request) of my recent choreography, and as I showed her a sweet video of Banksy opening an early Christmas present in my parents’ family room a few days prior, she suddenly paused—her hands cupping mine around the phone. “Play it again,” she said, peering closer, and so I did. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she pointed above my pup to the guitar on the wall, “That’s John’s. That’s John’s guitar!” “Yes, Noni!” I exclaimed, having become so used to my grandfather's guitar being there that I’d nearly forgotten. “Johnny, your grandson, plays it now.” She shook her head, crying yet smiling, “That’s so good. That’s so good… You know,” she reminded me, “John and I could never dance like you—we were too busy playing in the band; we never learned to dance!” Laughter returned to her soul, and I listened to her reminisce about my Pop Pop, her true love, and their deep connection through music.

And so, as I sit here feeling so far away, I will hold onto the fact that she and my Pop Pop will soon be reunited—a vibrant red reunion—for red is the color of music; their music.


ADDENDUM: I completed writing this post on Thursday, April 30th, 2020, a little before 7pm. I read it aloud to Sean, sent it to my cousin, then heard the phone ring—my Noni had passed away just after 7pm.

This post is lovingly dedicated to Francesca Cristina Guerra (1924-2020). 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top 10 Professional Highlights of 2018

It's that time of year again—time to reflect on the past 365 days' accomplishments through a professional lens. With my work now spanning both New England and the Mid-Atlantic, there's much to choose from, yet even more exciting were the moments this past year when my work traveled abroad to Canada, Italy, and Germany! 

These are the ten highlights that are fueling my energy as I head into 2019's already brimming professional pursuits. With many ideas swirling through my head, it's important to pause and look back before diving into the alluring (and daunting) unknown.



Since relocating my day-to-day to Princeton, NJ, I've continued to split my time with Boston, MA, as I continue to engage in the arts scene there, while looking for a new role in Princeton to replace my daily work as Art Director of Art New England magazine in Boston for the past five years. After some casual networking, I was quickly contacted by Princeton University Press, who sought a new Production Manager (a role I know inside and out thanks to my work at the magazine!). Since February, I've become responsible for the manufacturing of hundreds of titles per season (from reprints of the old Jung volumes—whose jackets require my designer instincts—to new books awaiting their grand debuts). Like at Art New England, I serve as the linchpin between Creative, Production, Editorial, and Sales as I continue to expand my knowledge of the publishing world, while working for one of the oldest and most prestigious presses in the nation—just look at the gorgeous building I work in with its historic architecture!


In April, my dance-on-camera film The One I Keep (featuring Luminarium company member Jess Chang) was selected for viewing at the First Take Shorts Series. Held in The County Theater of historic Doylestown, PA, the evening featured 12 shorts by Greater Philadelphia filmmakers, ending with a Q&A in which I was the only female filmmaker in attendance. While it saddens me how often this is the case, I am also always eager to attend these events in the hopes of inspiring more women to enter this predominantly male field.


Over the summer, I was thrilled to learn that The One I Keep had been selected for screening at Cefalù Film Festival in Palermo, Italy. While my choreographic works, dance-on-camera films, and interactive art installations have been presented by more than 80 events across the country (in California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont), this screening at Cefalù Film Festival marked my first showing outside of the U.S. It felt particularly sentimental for me, as Italy is a place I've always dreamed of visiting. Having my artistic film travel there first felt oddly fitting (and little did I know two more countries would be featuring it in the coming months!).


At the end of Luminarium's 2017 Season, we were approached by the Clermont Historic Site about a customized performance. After months of discussion, research, and rehearsals, Luminarium presented a family-friendly performance in August 2018 on the beautiful Clermont Historic Site grounds in upstate New York, featuring two newly commissioned works: one setting into motion the real-life story of Clermont historic figure Nancy Shippen; the other examining the effect of legacy on industry in the Hudson River Valley. These two new works (My own Trinkets and Kim's Intersections, respectively) were performed alongside excerpts from our then-pending feature production HIVELAND and my historically-inspired, repertory favorite The Hostess Diaries. Serving as my annual Cultural Community Outreach Project, the program was sponsored in part by a Humanities New York Action Grant, and was by far my favorite endeavor of 2018.


Over the summer, I felt honored to be interviewed for a special edition of periodical WomenCinemakers in Berlin, Germany, featuring artistic films by noteworthy female artists from Tokyo, Amsterdam, London, Athens, and beyond. Selected to speak on my 2013 film The One I Keep, my interview dives deep into the work, while speaking on what lies ahead.

"Elegantly composed and marked out with refined choreography, this stimulating work is a successful attempt to create a brilliant allegory of human condition capable of drawing the viewers to a heightened and multilayered experience." Read the full interview here!


In the Fall, I was elected to the Board of Trustees for Dance New Jersey (a nonprofit resource for the state’s expansive dance scene) as a thought leader for new public programming and fundraising events. Before joining the Board, I welcomed the opportunity to participate as a choreographer for Paths Cross/Doors Open (pictured above), which in many ways reminded me of a mini ChoreoFest (Luminarium's 24-hour choreography festival). In a few months, this fantastic event is returning, and I'm humbled to be leading it—from teaching the warmup to guiding the creative choreographic process.


Hailed as one of “the most intelligent and innovative dance troupes in Boston,” Luminarium Dance Company returned after a two-year creation period in September with its feature production HIVELAND. Audiences were submerged inside the dreamlike world of HIVELAND’s athletic and weightless performers as they journeyed through a portal beyond the hive colony into the unknown, while composer Christos Zevos set the pace with a driving electronic score.

Kim and I worked around the clock on this production for two full seasons, and the end result was an evening-length singular narrative that beautifully entwined our two artistic voices, while giving our company members room to grow their characters from the production's tentative and geometric silhouetted opening to its vibrant and triumphant finale. Above all, we were overjoyed to read Karen Campbell's review in the prestigious Boston Globe, touting HIVELAND as "a compelling exploration...unpredictable, provocative, and gratifyingly visceral." Read the full review here!


After a productive Spring networking with the New Jersey dance community, I was grateful to have met Rider University Dance Dept. Director Dr. Kim Vaccaro, who not only hired me to teach Odissi master classes and work with the dance department on its Spring 2019 production, but agreed to help me work out a wonderful exchange with her students. In September, Luminarium's satellite company (based in Princeton, NJ) made its official debut, performing repertory favorite The Hostess Diaries at Liberty Hall Dance Festival and featuring Rider University dance majors. As I head into Luminarium's 2019 Season, these ladies will work with me on creating new work, which I will then show locally (featuring the New Jersey dancers) and/or bring to Boston to set on the company up there.

Pictured above: Luminarium Satellite performs at Liberty Hall Dance Festival, co-presented by Buggé Ballet and Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University. The event invited viewers to walk along the beautiful museum grounds, while enjoying site-specific professional dance performances inspired by moments in history.


In October, I learned that my film The One I Keep would once again travel abroad—this time to Canada—having been selected for screening as part of ViDEOSKiN Contemporary Dance Video Works. The film was presented at The Edge Gallery in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, with showings every Saturday in November.


Chronologically last, but certainly not least, the Fjord Review announced in December its first-ever print magazine. I've been a journalist for the Fjord Review for three years now, writing feature articles, interviews, and critiques on ballet and contemporary dance in Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, and Princeton. This international online publication never ceases to amaze me with its stunningly beautiful photoshoots and exceptional writing from contributors literally all over the world. I'm eager receive my copy, as this new print edition will include my review of Alonzo King's LINES Ballet.

Yet as fate would have it, I am once again struck by the synchronicity of this final post, for just as my work this year traveled to Canada, Italy, and Germany, this morning I read that this print magazine was "made in Canada, designed in Italy, and printed in Germany." How fitting to think that this lovely periodical and my dance-on-camera film traveled the same path this year, and that both are (in a small way) sharing my voice with the world.

Wishing you all a joyous start to 2019 and many, many adventures ahead!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Kinetic Craft Residency in Review

For my 2017 Cultural Community Outreach Project (the 6th project in this annual series), I successfully created a residency for Luminarium at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton for the entire week of April school vacation. Every day from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday, April 18 through Sunday, April 23, 2017, five company members performed throughout the museum, personifying each of the museum's five crafting elements in a project we titled Kinetic Craft.

Over the course of four months, I painstakingly constructed a series of “breathing installations”—a concept I first developed back in 2011 with my fabric installation for Luminarium's residency at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Movement at the Mills—this time highlighting the five crafting elements: Textiles, Ceramics, Wood, Glass, and Metal.

The museum's 471 visitors that week perused the museum at their leisure as dancers from each installation performed and interacted with those passing by. Engaging for all ages, the event was free with museum admission, and garnered high praise from artists and participants alike. Luminarium received many lovely notes from those who attended saying that the week-long event "spoiled" them, and that it was the "best event that's ever come to the museum." To quote Titilayo Ngwenya, Director of Communications for the Fuller Craft Museum: "I wanted to congratulate you on a series of installations that not only captured the essence of the different craft media, but also engaged the audience with wonder and beautiful motion."

In addition to the hundreds of locals who attended, Luminarium was pleased to see many of its own followers wandering the museum—many of whom had never been, but commented on wanting to return. This was excellent feedback to receive, as one of Luminarium's goals of its annual Cultural Community Outreach Project is to introduce new patrons to the landmark it is honoring.

I'm especially grateful to the Brockton Cultural Council, whose grant helped make Kinetic Craft possible. It filled me with pride to be able to hire our network of company members and local performing artists at an hourly wage instead of a token stipend at the end of a long week. It allowed a total of 12 performers to sign up for as many shifts as they were able to take on, and by the end of the week, several of our company members were surprised to see how quickly their hours added up to a healthy paycheck! (A reality that in itself pains me—to see the surprise of fellow artists upon receiving fair compensation for the amount of work they put in. But that's a societal issue I'll address in a later post.) So thank you, BCC, for making this possible.

While Kim tackled the theme of Ceramics, I took on the other four. It's always an eerie moment to look back at my original notes and compare them to the end results—whether nearly identical from sketch to reality, or watching my thoughts morph and reshape themselves throughout the creative process. Below are my four breathing installations, then and now:

The goal was to create a full-bodied wind chime to highlight the resonant tones that metal can make. Our dancers would demonstrate the installation's ability to be played by any part of the body—foot, shoulder, knee, head—and encouraged visitors to set the metal bars into motion themselves. A hit with both young and old alike, the Metal Installation could be heard echoing through the halls of the museum, as engaged participants performed new melodies of their own.

Here, I chose to highlight wood's ability to be either strong and structural, or so thin and fragile that light can diffuse through it. The result was my trickiest installation to build: A large wooden structure supporting three semi-opaque walls of tissue paper, allowing the sunlight in the window to highlight the dancer's shadowy movements within. Being only semi-opaque, we quickly learned onsite that the performer needed to move closely along the paper walls, or else she'd disappear. This allowed for some interesting dialogue between performer and viewer, as those passing by were not always initially aware of her presence inside.

This installation morphed dramatically from its first concept to its final manifestation. Consistent throughout was my desire to capture glass's beautiful ability to melt, drip, liquify—and then to freeze in time. In the end, it wasn't a large, complex installation that needed to be built, but instead, simple and mobile. Inspired by my glass-blowing adventure with Kim, dancers were instructed to move with liquidity throughout the space while holding a white-hot glass orb. As they slowed to a static pose, they tapped the light attached to the orb I'd found—turning off the light and revealing its opaque opalescent swirls.

Kinetic Craft offered me the opportunity to restage Untitled Breathing Installation #1, originally created for Luminarium's Movement at the Mills performance for the Boston Center for the Arts. Over the course of the week, dancers crept in and out of their blanket fort, asking viewers to select their favorite fabric scraps, then sewing them artfully onto this once-white dress. By the end of the week, the dress had become a patchwork medley of colors and textures—paying homage to textiles' role to clothe us, whether out of fashion or necessity.

Please enjoy some footage of the week via Luminarium's promo video below:

And additional footage via the Fuller Craft Museum's video thanking Luminarium for its hard work:

Photos of the event can be viewed via Luminarium's Facebook album (click the thumbnail below) including some moments captured of our youngest viewer interacting with the installations:

Thank you to all who supported and participated in this out-of-the-norm residency, and to the network of performing artists who continuously make my Cultural Community Outreach Project a success.


Kinetic Craft was supported in part by a grant from the Brockton Cultural Council, a local agency which is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Que vous avez inspiré...

I've spoken these words on my blog in the past, and I'll say them again: I may not be "religious" in the traditional sense, but I am a firm believer in the power of synchronicity to make me pause and appreciate the interconnectedness of this complex universe of ours as a whole.

This summer I found myself caught in the swirl of one such synchronous moment—so personally profound that that I'm documenting and sharing it here. Sean and I traveled to Quebec this summer for a wedding, and while there, came across an artist's work that spoke to us both. Yet as the weekend went on, and Sean debated purchasing a piece, I was surprised to find that this artist's work meant more to me than I initially realized. Perhaps the best way to tell the story is to simply share the email I sent to the artist once we returned home. Here it is, in my rusty French, and then translated into English below.

Subject: Bonjour d'un artiste que vous avez inspiré...

Chère Sonia, 
J'ai récemment acheté une de vos magnifiques œuvres d'art, et cela m'a causé une expérience très émouvante. Quelques mois plus tard, je prends maintenant le temps de vous écrire et de vous raconter comment vos œuvres d'art sont importantes pour moi depuis mon enfance. Cette note est émouvante pour moi d'écrire, et j'espère que c'est bien reçu! 
Quand j'étais une jeune fille, mes parents m'ont emmené avec mon frère et moi en vacances à Québec, à partir de notre maison à Boston, MA, États-Unis. Je me souviens de tomber amoureux de la vieille architecture de la ville, de son histoire, et surtout de ses ruelles cachées pleines d'artistes de rue. À Boston, je n'avais jamais vu des artistes montrer leur travail dans les rues, alors c'était spécial pour moi. 
Mes parents sont des partisans des arts et ils m'ont aussi inculqué l'amour de l'art. Un jour de notre voyage, nous sommes retournés à la ruelle avec des stands d'art, et mes parents m'ont invité à choisir une œuvre d'art pour ma chambre. De toutes les œuvres d'art de la rue, l'une d'elles se détachait: une gravure minimaliste de deux ours bruns qui marchaient dans la neige. À l'époque, tout dans ma chambre était lumineux et joyeux, avec des papillons et des ballerines décorant mes murs. Pourtant j'étais là, tenant une gravure sombre, brune et blanche, contrairement à tout ce que j'avais déjà exprimé mon intérêt. 
Surpris par mon choix, mes parents m'ont demandé si j'étais sûr que c'était celui que je voulais, et pas l'arbre à fleurs qui était à côté de cela qu'ils envisageaient d'acheter. Je me suis immédiatement découragé et j'ai retourné les ours, mais je l'ai toujours regretté.
Seize ans plus tard, je suis maintenant un danseur professionnel et un artiste interdisciplinaire, avec un amour de l'art visuel. Il n'y a pas de fées dans ma chambre, mais mon mari (Sean) et moi avons décoré nos murs avec des œuvres d'art que nous avons collectionnées dans le monde entier. 
En juillet, Sean et moi sommes allés au Québec pour un mariage (juste un mois avant notre propre mariage!). C'était la première fois de Sean au Québec, et ma première fois depuis 2001. Chaque fois que mon mari voyage dans un nouveau pays, il cherche un «souvenir» fidèle à la région, signé par l'artiste, et idéalement il rencontre l'artiste. C'est parfois difficile à accomplir! Mais cela devient un ajout mémorable à notre maison. 
Quand nous avons trouvé une rue avec des artistes (y compris de nombreuses gravures à vendre), il est devenu très excité, tout comme moi. Nous avons tous deux convenu que le premier artiste était de loin supérieur en détail et imagination aux autres gravures que nous avions vues. Mais Sean hésitait à acheter l'œuvre car elle représentait des sites que nous n'avions pas visités.

Cette nuit-là, il m'a demandé mon avis, et je lui ai parlé de la belle gravure d'ours qui ne correspondait pas tout à fait à mon style habituel, mais que j'avais toujours regretté de laisser derrière elle. "Ironiquement", ai-je dit, "c'est arrivé ici au Québec, et c'était une gravure de technique similaire à ce que vous aimez." 
Le lendemain, nous sommes retournés au stand d'art. L'homme qui regardait le stand se souvenait de nous et a montré à Sean plus d'œuvres d'art, jusqu'à ce qu'il en trouve un qui combinait notre amour de l'histoire et l'idée de la ville de Québec «alors et maintenant». C'était parfait. 
Il a ensuite demandé si nous étions familiers avec la façon dont les gravures sont faites, et a commencé à nous montrer de vieilles photos des travaux en cours. En feuilletant le livre, mon cœur s'est arrêté. Là, dans l'une des photos, il y avait mes ours bruns perdus depuis longtemps dans la neige, en cours de création. Je ne pouvais pas le croire! J'aurais dû dire quelque chose, mais je me suis figé. Je ne pouvais littéralement pas croire que toutes ces années plus tard, nous avions trébuché sur la même ruelle et étions tombés amoureux du même artiste. 
Sean a acheté votre œuvre et maintenant elle est encadrée avec nos autres œuvres d'Europe et d'Asie. 
Une semaine plus tard, j'ai raconté toute l'histoire à mes parents. Ils ont trouvé l'information originale avec l'œuvre d'art qu'ils ont achetée en 2001, et bien sûr, il y avait ton nom: Sonia Gilbert. Mon père (qui se sentait mal de ne pas avoir choisi les ours à l'époque) a localisé ton site web et l'oeuvre dont je me souvenais.

Se rendre dans une ville étrangère en tant qu'artiste en herbe et tomber amoureux du travail d'un artiste professionnel, puis tomber amoureux du même artiste seize ans plus tard (maintenant que je suis moi-même artiste professionnel) fut une expérience émotionnelle pour moi. Je voulais partager cette histoire avec vous afin que vous sachiez que les touristes qui passent devant votre stand n'oublient pas votre travail. Pour certains spectateurs, votre travail les inspire pour les années à venir. 
Je vous remercie,

Subject: Thank you from an artist you inspired...

Dear Sonia,

I recently bought one of your beautiful works of art, and it was a very moving experience for me. A few months later, I am now taking the time to write to you and tell you how your art has been important to me since my childhood. This note is emotional for me to write, and I hope it is well received!

When I was a girl, my parents took my brother and me on vacation to Quebec, from our home in Boston, MA, USA. I remember falling in love with the old architecture of the city, its history, and especially its hidden streets full of street artists. In Boston, I had never seen artists show their work on the streets, so it was special for me.

My parents are supporters of the arts and they also instilled in me the love of art. One day of our trip, we returned to the alley with art booths, and my parents invited me to choose a piece of art for my room. Of all the works of art in the street, one of them stood out: a minimalist engraving of two brown bears walking in the snow. At the time, everything in my room was bright and cheerful, with butterflies and ballerinas decorating my walls. Yet there I was, holding a dark, brown and white engraving, contrary to any of my prior interests.

Surprised by my choice, my parents asked me if I was sure it was the one I wanted, and not the flower tree that was next to that they were considering buying. I immediately became discouraged and returned the bears, but I have always regretted it.

Sixteen years later, I am now a professional dancer and an interdisciplinary artist, with a love of visual art. There are no fairies in my room, but my husband (Sean) and I decorate our walls with works of art that we have collected from around the world.

In July, Sean and I went to Quebec for a wedding (just a month before our own wedding!). It was Sean's first time in Quebec, and my first time since 2001. Whenever my husband travels to a new country, he looks for a "souvenir" true to the region, signed by the artist, and ideally he meets the artist. It is sometimes difficult to accomplish! But it becomes a memorable addition to our home.

When we found a street with artists (including many prints for sale), he became very excited, just like me. We both agreed that the first artist was far superior in detail and imagination to the other prints we had seen. But Sean was reluctant to buy the work because it depicted sites we had not visited.

That night, he asked me for my opinion, and I told him about the beautiful engraving of a bear that did not quite fit my usual style, but that I had always regretted leaving behind. "Ironically," I said, "it happened here in Quebec, and it was an engraving similar to what you like."

The next day we went back to the art booth. The man who was watching the stand remembered us and showed Sean more works of art, until he found one that combined our love of history with the idea of ​​the city of Quebec "then and now." It was perfect.

He then asked if we were familiar with how the prints were made, and started showing us old pictures of the work in progress. Leafing through the book, my heart stopped. There, in one of the pictures, were my brown bears long lost in the snow, being created. I could not believe it! I should have said something, but I froze. I literally could not believe that all these years later, we had stumbled onto the same alley and fallen in love with the same artist.

Sean bought your work and now it is framed with our other works from Europe and Asia.

A week later, I told the story to my parents. They found the original information with the artwork they bought in 2001, and of course, there was your name: Sonia Gilbert. My father (who felt bad about me not choosing the bears at the time) located your website and the work I remembered.

Going to a foreign city as an aspiring artist and falling in love with the work of a professional artist, then falling in love with the same artist sixteen years later (now that I'm a professional artist myself) was an emotional experience for me. I wanted to share this story with you so that you know that the tourists who pass by your booth do not forget your work. For some viewers, your work inspires them for years to come.

Thank you,
Much to my excitement, I soon received the following reply.

Je suis très émue !!! 
Votre courriel a rempli de fierté ma fille et mon amoureux..., ce qui me touche énormément ! 
C'est une belle histoire et c'est une grande récompense pour mon labeur. 
J'ai inculque l'amour des arts à ma fille et ça me touche que d'autres suivent ce chemin qui élève le cœur et l'esprit des humains. 
Je fais la même chose que vous lorsque je voyage. J'encourage les artistes ! 
J'aime, à la fin de la saison, me rendre sur la Rue du Trésor pour rencontrer les gens, mes gens. Cela me donne beaucoup d'énergie et votre courriel me remplie de bonheur. 
Vous êtes très belle ! 
J'aimerais votre adresse postale si cela ne vous ennuie pas. 
Merci beaucoup.
Sonia Gilbert

I am very moved !!! 
Your email has filled with pride my daughter and my boyfriend ... it affects me tremendously! 
It's a great story and it's a great reward for my toil. 
I instills the love of art with my daughter and it touches me that others follow this path that elevates the heart and mind of humans. 
I'm the same as you when I travel. I encourage artists! 
Like at the end of the season, go on the street Treasury to meet the people, my people. This gives me a lot of energy and email filled me with happiness. 
You are very beautiful ! 
I would like your mailing address if you do not mind. 
Thank you very much.
Sonia Gilbert

A few months later, I received in the mail an intricate, tiny print of a hummingbird. Such a gorgeous gesture! In turn, I sent Sonia a small bundle of seed packets (Botanical Interests uses artwork on all of their seed packets—simply beautiful) to attract hummingbirds to her garden. Sure enough, she replied that she does love to garden and looks forward to planting them in the Spring.

So there it is: Another moment, seemingly just like any other, until that swirl of energy catches you up and you realize you've been here before. Only this time, you realize you did take the bears home with you after all—in fact, you've carried them with you every day since.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Top 10 Professional & Personal Highlights of 2017

2017 will forever be a year for the books.

I wish I could write that one sentence and call this annual entry complete, but I promised myself a while back to always take a moment at the start of each January to reflect on the year before—specifically, to document my top ten professional accomplishments—in an effort to remind myself that, Yes, I really did make progress in my career!

Yet 2017 was a little different, and for that reason, my top ten list is going to reflect this difference by encapsulating not only professional accomplishments and milestones, but personal ones as well.

Merli V. Guerra's art installation, Pieces, on view at We Create, 2017.


Stepping into 2017, I was already knee-deep in my We Create project, having begun my work as one of its 2016-17 cohort artists in September. Through April, I continued to research and develop my initial concept: delving into the cohort’s 2016-17 theme of “hidden stories” by creating an art installation recognizing those with physical and mental disabilities. As my work unfolded, I found myself narrowing in on the specific story of my Noni’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and society’s habit of tucking Alzheimer’s patients away—glancing by them only on the surface, unaware of the beautiful, multifaceted lives hidden within. Although I ultimately found the We Create cohort to be largely flawed in its execution, the piece I created through this process turned out to be quite poignant in more ways than one. Find out why by reading my post Red is the color of music.

2. PROFESSIONAL: 2 New Commissions—Devil's Turn & Rosoff Awards

In past years, Spring has been a quieter time for Luminarium, which allows Kim and me an opportunity to use our Winter rehearsals in a gradual, constructively explorative way. Yet this season, similar to 2016, we found ourselves with a wild January through May as we prepared for back-to-back commissions, a weeklong residency at the Fuller Craft Museum, and invitational showings in NYC and Endicott College.

Our first set of commissions for the year was the long-awaited result of a collaboration with Boston New Music Initiative. Kim and I were each given a selection of contemporary orchestral works from around the world, and I quickly fell in love with John Allemeier’s The Devil’s Turn—inspired by the quick-tempoed fiddle reel of the same name. Incorporating fleeting moments of folk dance and paralleling the string quartet with a quartet of dancers, the new work debuted to an enthusiastic audience at BNMI’s Ars Nexa Tempora at the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA, in April.

The second commission was a choreographic collaboration between Kim, myself, and the The Ad Club, who approached us to create a new to open the prestigious 2017 Rosoff Awards at the State Room in Boston, MA. The new quintet celebrated diversity, individuality, and the power of rising as a unified society.

Jess Chang performs Merli V. Guerra's Untitled Breathing Installation #2: Glass. 

3. PROFESSIONAL: Kinetic Craft

For my 2017 Cultural Community Outreach Project (the 6th project in this annual series), I successfully created a residency for Luminarium Dance Company at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA, for the entire week of April school vacation. Every day from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday, April 18 through Sunday, April 23, 2017, five company members performed throughout the museum, personifying each of the museum's five crafting elements in my project Kinetic Craft.

Over the course of four months, I painstakingly constructed a series of “breathing installations”—a concept I first developed back in 2011 with my fabric installation for Luminarium's residency at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Movement at the Mills—this time highlighting four of the five crafting elements (Textiles, Wood, Glass, and Metal), while Kim tackled the fifth (Ceramics). Serving 471 visitors and featuring 12 company members and guest performers, Kinetic Craft successfully interwove movement with craft. For a more thorough synopsis with photos, videos, and testimonials, read my post “Kinetic Craft Residency in Review.”

4. PERSONAL: A Tale of Two Cities

In June, Sean and I relocated our lives to Princeton, NJ, for a job offer Sean couldn’t refuse. I don’t often speak about my personal life beyond the arts on this online journal (an intentional omission), but as I mentioned at the start of this post, 2017 marked many milestones in my personal life that merit public sharing. If I’ve never said it on here before, I regularly recognize how fortunate I am to have such an incredible partner. Yes, Kim is amazing, but this time I do mean my romantic partner. Sean is one of the single hardest working minds I know—and that’s coming from someone whose brain is constantly running! He approaches his work with a level of thoughtfulness, interest, and independence that cannot help but reveal results. As much as it saddened me to see the writing on the wall back in 2016 when he accepted a summer internship with Bristol Myers Squibb in New Jersey, I was also overjoyed to witness him working for a company that both pushed him and, at the same time, saw in him what I do. It came as a shock to my ever-under-estimating then fiancé (and as no surprise to anyone else in his life) when he was offered a rotational position with the company to begin in 2017. The work he has done since our move—and will no doubt continue to do—is astounding.

Luckily, New Jersey is a mere 6-hour drive from Boston, so my work in Massachusetts in most ways hasn't skipped a beat. As I settle into a groove of commuting back and forth for events (be it my own, or those I'm reviewing and supporting), I am confident that this relocation will proffer opportunities to further grow in my field. Already, I have met inspiring artists hailing from NYC, Philly, and the Garden State, with whom I hope to collaborate.

From a family perspective, the pace here is far slower than in Boston. It feels as though time can finally be given to long walks with my other half in the myriad of wooded parks peppering Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey, and our neighborhood is warm and welcoming (it took a while to get used to people saying "hello" to me on the street and not wanting anything in return!). Truly, there is beauty here in its more relaxed approach to life, and I look forward to our adventure unfolding as I balance my own Tale of Two Cities between Boston and Princeton.

Photos: Somerby Jones.

5. PERSONAL: Married

It's official! On August 12, 2017, Sean and I made a commitment to keep this party going all life long. Read my thoughts on the wedding (and my thwarted attempt to elope) in my post "Sorry, Sean. You're stuck with me."

6. PERSONAL: Puppy Parenthood

As Sean and I discussed the challenges and benefits of relocating, one benefit became excitingly clear: A move to New Jersey meant we would finally have space for a dog! No more cramped apartments with zero backyards; we would finally be able to bring a pup into our lives. A mere five days after our wedding, we traveled five hours to Virginia to pick up Banksy (yes, named after the elusive graffiti artist), our adorable little Goldendoodle. It’s been a nonstop rollercoaster of emotions ever since—from affection to frustration, amusement to worry—and while her name has grown to “Banksy Nala Piranha-Puppy Guerra” (or simply “Banksy Connolly” when she’s quietly behaving), this unpredictable ball of fluff has wriggled her way into our hearts for good. You can follow Banksy on Instagram @banksysighting for daily updates on her shenanigans.

Photo: Brian Bolanowski.

7. PROFESSIONAL: Outlet Dance Project

Luminarium made its New Jersey debut this fall at the impressive Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. I felt honored to be selected as one of the choreographers creating new work for The Outlet Dance Project, as it meant my own New Jersey artistic debut as well. Performed by Kim and myself, Weathered was created in relation to Linda Cunningham's striking bronze sculpture War Memorial III. This towering duet used 1970s CBS Vietnam newscasts as a sound score—at times, standing tall as the heroes of war, and at others, becoming engulfed by the darkness as were the civilian and military victims of battle. I described the impetus behind the new work in my application proposal:

“As a choreographer and visual artist, I often find my work revolves around the concept of the present intermingling with the past. Be it facing a past iteration of one’s self, or connecting with those who came before us, my work has been described as “haunting,” and “cyclical.” So, too, do I feel this when witnessing Linda Cunningham’s War Memorial III, whose abstracted towers of bronze strike the eye as both piercing upward through the ground while simultaneously melting back to whence they came. Researching the installation further, I find this duality of rising and falling to be beautifully metaphoric—from standing tall as veterans to withering and being forgotten, this “war memorial” begs to be set in motion.”

Performed on October 7, 2017, Weathered will hold a special place in my memory for years to come—in addition to marking my first Mid-Atlantic performance, it happened to fall on my 30th birthday! Not only that, but the sculpture itself was created in 1987, so it, too, was celebrating its 30th year on this earth. Call me sentimental, but there is something satisfyingly synchronous about marking that key milestone together (not to mention spending the day with poor Kim, who was sweating buckets under 40 yards of black satin in the 90 degree sun!).

8. PROFESSIONAL: Leaving Art New England

Relocating to New Jersey meant a shift in my work as a designer as well. In October 2017, I officially resigned from my role as Art Director of Art New England magazine. During my five-year tenure at ANE, I oversaw the magazine’s growth from 60 to 120 pages, bi-monthly; designed its feature, column, and review layouts; and mocked up a total of roughly 1,500 covers (only 28 of which ever made it to fruition). Nothing quite compares to holding the physical manifestation of a project in my own two hands—thumbing through its pages, and marveling at the cover’s fully-realized design. Equally engaging are feature layouts, which have proffered me the most room for creativity—from discussing the piece as a whole with the editor to enhancing the writer’s words through imagery. As I move on, I’m grateful for the friendships I’ve made while holding this position, and for the breadth of artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with and promoting nationally.

9. PROFESSIONAL: Dance International

In the fall, I was proud to add another publication to my list of freelance dance critic assignments: Dance International magazine. My first review for this Canadian-based print publication is set to appear in the February issue, and I’m grateful to its Editor Kaija Pepper for helping me adjust to the magazine’s writing style. Keep your eyes peeled for a piece on Boston Ballet’s Obsidian Tear, with works by Jorma Elo and Wayne McGregor.

10. PROFESSIONAL: Moderated 100 Years of Modern Dance

At this stage in my career, I’ve spoken on a variety of panels covering the topics of entrepreneurship, choreography, arts funding, and legislation, to name a few. I ended 2017 with a new panel experience: as moderator. I was delighted when Kathy Hassinger, Artistic Director of Dance Currents, Inc., invited me to moderate her post-performance panel for 100 Years of Modern Dance at Green Street Studios in Cambridge, MA. In November, I had the honor of guiding a dialogue between local dance mavens Marcus Schulkind, Margot Parsons, Joanie Block, Ali Smith, Samantha Govoni, and Whitney Cover to an engaged audience who commented they wished the conversation could have gone on much longer! The event was a wonderful end to the year, and pushed me to participate in panels in a new capacity, while trying my best to employ my Libra balancing skills.