by Carlos Antonio Piñón
November 5, 2018
One of the first ever public readings I gave was at the Albany Park Chicago Public Library on the northside of Chicago. This was the second two readings in collaboration for Hispanic Heritage month with the first being in the beginning and this one being at the end. Since the first show was a huge success, we were expecting a packed audience again. I recall setting up all of the chairs and asking, "You think this is enough?" before setting up another row of chairs. We were all rehearsed and ready to give the performance of a lifetime. And then only four people showed up. In hindsight, the fact that anyone showed up at all was a miracle. We had no advertising, no word of mouth—hell, we almost didn't have a room reserved for us at all because the library forgot about us. Yet as I stood before a crowd consisting of 50% performers and 50% audience, fully aware of the giant portrait of Captain Underpants behind me, and the many colorful toys for toddlers surrounding us, I felt enriched knowing my five minutes on what could hardly be called a stage had captured the attention of two high school-aged boys, the hardest demographic to get to care about anything. And they laughed. My jokes landed, and in that moment, my writing had a tangible impact.
I have never been one to shy away from a challenge, whether from modest bravery or sheer stupidity. I even find value in complete failure as a tool to help me learn—something I mastered while getting my BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I recall another reading with a similar scenario a year later—in which the audience reached a maximum of five people, but also half the performers didn't show up either. I remember looking to my fellow performer and saying, "Listen, I'm going to still read even if you and I are the only ones here." Yet, I think it is this persistence that propels me further. At heart, I'm a storyteller. I believe everyone has a story to tell, even if they don't know it. For me, I like to think by being wholeheartedly true and honest in my writing, I could inspire the next person who would then inspire the next. I'm talking about a revolution—in many ways, we already see this unfolding everywhere from business to politics. When people finally have the courage to speak up, that's when we inspire real change. For me, I don't have to change the entire world in order to change someone's world. Much in the way the mycelia of fungus is strengthened by many interwoven hyphae, I want to empower a network people to be their most honest selves through writing. Together, we are like a mushroom—becoming life from what otherwise is decaying, and our spores permeate everywhere we go.
I grew up in the southside of Chicago in the Gage Park neighborhood. In my part of the city, we don't really have an arts scene. Growing up, art and music classes were always getting cut, and I can't even remember creative writing ever being a focus at all. It wasn't until I went to high school at Lane Tech when my connection to writing became personal and cathartic. In my sophomore year of high school, I met a new student teacher named Andy Fine. Andy's class would quickly become my favorite—his assignments fostered creative responses to our reading material. No matter how we chose to respond, as long as it was relevant to the text, we could write anything. Under Andy's guidance, my interest in writing flourished. I was writing a lot of deeply personal stuff, using writing to help understand my role in life. By the time I was a senior, it was no question that I would apply to the SAIC's writing program.
At SAIC, I made it my goal to learn everything I possibly could about writing. Class after class, subject after subject, I took everything I possibly could: fiction, poetry, on the page, off the page, aloud, on stage, recording studio, installation, letterpress, electronic writing, etc. I made it my goal to know how every possible component of writing could affect a reader's understanding, from the words themselves to the typeface, from the kind of paper used to the placement of text on the page, from experimenting with the book as an art form to performing on stage.
That's when, near the end of my time at SAIC, my focus fixated on nonfiction. Through Andy, I met his husband, Jeremy Owens, who runs a nonfiction storytelling show called You're Being Ridiculous. From writing amateurs to storytelling veterans, You're Being Ridiculous hosts "real people telling true stories about their lives." In attendance show after show, this motto is one that has been deeply engraved down inside of me. This inspired me to try my hand at storytelling on stage. Starting with local shows and open mics, I would go on to perform at several Chicago Public Libraries, as well as the Jackson Junge Gallery. Suddenly, I found myself writing nonfiction essays for my thesis. Having written about sexuality, the neighborhood I grew up in, religion, and body image, my writing once again became deeply personal. So much so that I found myself on stage at the Steppenwolf Theatre performing for You're Being Ridiculous for the first time.
Ever since that show, I would long to chase that high of having a captive audience—to have a sold-out room listen to your every word, not out of necessity, but because they want to hear you speak. They want to hear your story because they, too, have a story of their own. Not everyone is an artist, but anyone can make art because the most fundamental component to making art is the connection with others. Art is made to be seen and to be shared, even when we hide it from each other, making work in dark rooms. No matter for whom art is made, whether it be for a global audience or for ourselves, art is a reflection of what we know, what we understand, and what we can imagine. Art is a reflection of ourselves. For me, it's not a matter of how many people see my art; rather, it's about who sees my art. Who benefits from me, standing on stage, describing the exact sensation of my pupils expanding, arm rushing to grab my own ass as shit leaks onto my favorite pair of shorts like a dam bursting or like when you put your thumb on the water rushing out of a hose on full blast? Personally, I don't know who wants to pay money to hear that, but the look on my boyfriend's face when I sign to him that I need to go to the bathroom immediately as he puts what just happened together is still the funniest story I love to tell. And I know, it's these personal, less-than-idyllic stories that matter, and it's because they're honest, and more importantly, they're what it is to be human.
I still have a lot to learn about writing and subsequently about life, too. It's not good enough for me to know how to write when I want to write well. I want to be a master, and I want to help others master writing, too. Everyone can create, but sometimes, people need a little extra help. In my previous role as a teaching assistant, I've spent plenty of time critiquing and conversing about student art. Perhaps my favorite thing is that when students are stuck, they usually know what they need to do, but they just need to talk about it aloud. It's been amazing to watch a work of art from conception to execution from an external point of view—especially more recently at Blick Art Materials where I currently work. While I exclusively work on the web team, I had an opportunity to get a tour of the distribution center where my entire life changed yet again. It was then that I finally understood what it meant to create art. Before any art materials ever reach the hands of an artist, they are conceptualized after a substantial amount of research by teams and teams of people. It is then this team of people who decides to sell to us at Blick, where it then goes through even more teams and teams of people. From buyers to bring product in to the web team who puts it online, to the distribution center who sorts all of the product and ensures it gets to the customer. I stood meek as piles and piles of art materials surrounded me, all waiting to one day become works of art.
By the time any piece of material reaches the hands of an artist, it's been touched by so many people, and by the time the artist transforms the material, it has so much potential to become something extraordinary. To be hung in a gallery, in a museum, or even in your own home, a work of art has a long life. I want my art to matter. And as an artist, it is my sole responsibility to make my work mean something. To have the audience laugh and cry, to share an intimate moment, to tell stories seldom told, I want the three people in the audience to learn something, and if all they learn is how much of a huge nerd I am, then so be it.