Sharing the Journey: Kirstin Huber’s WRETCHED SCRAPBOOK

Kirsten Huber, Photo by Mia Min Yen

Kirstin Huber, Photo by Mia Min Yen

You wouldn’t know that the woman dancing (meditatively, joyfully) in the corner had spent much of the last two years struggling just to walk. You wouldn’t know that she’d undergone a pair of painful and frightening surgeries that left her scarred and upended her life. You wouldn’t know unless she told you, and in a recent one-evening event produced by The Bellwether, that’s exactly what Kirstin Huber did. “Told” is perhaps the wrong word; Wretched Scrapbook made use of video installation, photography, a homemade quilt, personal writings, and Kirstin herself dancing in the corner, all making the story of her journey real and accessible. The installation event was named for and spun out from the scrapbook journal in which Kirstin originally documented the experience of her recovery process after being diagnosed with a rare condition called hip dysplasia, which required invasive surgeries that reconstructed Kirstin’s hips to correct too-shallow hip sockets. In addition to making available her own Wretched Scrapbook and several zines she’s written about the experience, Kirstin was able to curate a selection of other self-help, self-love, and recovery chronicles from the Sketchbook Project, a crowd-sourced collection of sketchbooks housed at the Brooklyn Art Library where the event was held. Participants were also invited to wander through to another room and experience the video installation – multiple screens showing the recordings Kirstin had made of her movement during recovery, starting as an aide to physical therapy progress and blossoming into a celebration of all the weird, wonderful, life giving ways her healing body could move. A final space held the results of collaboration with photographer Erin Albrecht, a powerful series showing Kirstin and her scars in arresting visual landscapes that force the viewer to reimagine how we see the female body. I spoke with Kirstin about the joys and challenges of sharing her experience through this event.

Photo by Mia Min Yen

Photo by Mia Min Yen

SL: You wrote about how keeping the original Wretched Scrapbook impacted your journey through recovery – can you talk about how engaging in this public and multidimensional version of Wretched Scrapbook has impacted your understanding of your experience?

KH: When I decided that I wanted to share something so personal, it made me think about vulnerability (and sometimes worry about over-sharing). The only way I know how to tell this story is honestly and unapologetically. I felt a sense of power from the bluntness of it; of deciding not to be embarrassed or ashamed of the content that was sometimes stupid (cheeseburger stamps covering a page titled “Healthy Foods for Healing”), sometimes TMI (“ugh great evidently my ovaries are covered with a million cysts”), and sometimes graphic (“three doctors sterilized the front of my hip, drew an arrow on it with a Sharpie then used an ultrasound machine to guide a frighteningly long needle DEEP into my body and pump a nauseating amount of powerful drugs into my aching joint” ). Owning my recovery gave me confidence–healing is very personal because no one else can know or feel what you’re going through. Your body is a like a universe that only you live in. People shouldn’t have to compare their bodies to others in order to feel strong, beautiful, or powerful–that makes it impossible and also pointless.

SL: You are so eloquent in written form and tell what could be taken as a complete communication of your story in the zines and the original Wretched Scrapbook – How do you feel that the variety of media you were able to use and present impacted your ability to communicate your experience?

KH: The writing was really cathartic (thank you!). This experience is pretty radical and I want to document it well so that I can remember all the lessons I’ve learned. I like working in a variety of media because it reminds me of the multifaceted nature of my recovery. It’s also my tendency as an artist, to experiment with lots of materials and constantly try new things.

SL:There is so much light and positive energy in this project, even though the process and experience must have been incredibly difficult – can you talk about that a little bit?

KH: I couldn’t have survived this experience without putting myself in a mindset of optimism and hope. I try not to downplay the fact that I suffered a tremendous amount of pain and struggled to face it. I had to just convince myself that it would get better–expect it to–and slowly but surely it did. Whenever I felt down I had to remind myself how far I’d come, how much I had been through (wise advice from Mom). I can tend to get very ‘in the clouds’ and struggle with staying grounded…there’s nothing like being faced with your own mortality and weakness to make you humble and crave stability.

Photo by Mia Min Yen

Photo by Mia Min Yen

SL: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to work with The Bellwether, and how the collaboration with the Brooklyn Art Library impacted the project?

KH: I think we made arrangements with The Brooklyn Art Library about 2 months before the event.  It was a perfect location because they are home to the Sketchbook Project, which tied in nicely because I was able to curate a small selection of sketchbooks from their crowd-sourced library that also dealt with healing, pain, dancing…they have an incredible archive (most is digitized and online!) that can be searched by tags. That beautiful and unexpected connection to my work never could have happened at another venue! The only aspect of the project that existed prior to my Bellwether residency was the Wretched Scrapbook itself, but I also knew I wanted to make lots of zines. it was a dream to develop this work with The Bellwether. Dani especially helped me in so many ways; asking questions, offering ideas, giving me deadlines. The team has been so incredibly supportive, and I cherish their friendship deeply. Working with them isn’t even ‘work,’ it’s just awesome.

SL: What’s the hoped-for future public life for Wretched Scrapbook?

KH: I do hope to find more opportunities to share this work in a public setting, especially for Erin Albrecht’s photos to be on view for more than one night! I secretly hope maybe some dancers or choreographers will see my weird movement journal videos and want to teach me something or collaborate with me. I also hope that maybe it encourages other people who are facing a difficult recovery to use art or music or dance or even just a journal to pour their energy into, to open themselves up to the unexpected and find a place of healing.

Photo by Mia Min Yen

Photo by Mia Min Yen

The explicit value given to process and collaboration in both the form and content of Wretched Scrapbook is part of the core mission of The Bellwether. I also spoke with Dani Lencioni, one of The Bellwether’s producers, to learn more about the process by which they select and support artists for their installation events.

SL: Where does The Bellwether select the artists it works with?

DL: We seek out artists who we’re personally excited about, whose work we admire, and who we know or suspect to have a similarly curious and creative spirit. We have an annual pitch meeting where each of us propose a handful of artists who run the gamut from close friends to idols — as long as they can reasonably be called “emerging” — and talk about why we think they’d be a good fit. As a group, we settle on a shortlist that we feel good about in terms of artistic and demographic diversity, and approach our top few choices to gauge interest. Kirstin was someone I’d worked with professionally (at The Public Theater, where she is the Art Director) and always really admired — so I brought her name to our pitch meeting last year and we all agreed she would be a natural Bellwether artist. In our first conversation, Kirstin and I got to talking about my secret admiration for the post-surgery-scar photos she posted on Instagram, and I not-so-subtly suggested we work on something exploring that experience. As it turns out, she’d already been doing that in the form of a journal/sketchbook/drug-catalog that she’d started calling The Wretched Scrapbook.

SL: Can you talk a little more about the role of collaboration in The Bellwether’s work, including how you encourage or support collaborations by the artists whose work you showcase?

DL: In terms of working with artists, we do strongly encourage collaboration because part of our goal is to challenge our artists to stretch out a bit and work in a way that is atypical to their usual practice. Working with collaborators is certainly a way to do that. We’ve also found that facilitating these collaborations — finding an illustrator for a choreographer to work with, a writer for a chef to work with, a critic for a musician to work with, etc — helps expand and connect their creative communities (and our own!).

On an organizational level, I’d say we’ve acquired collaborators and co-hosts and volunteers out of necessity that have then turned into dream partnerships. A great example is our partnership with Egg and their chef Evan Hanczor. Evan was a Bellwether artist who then basically gave us the keys to his kingdom to host our Heaven series at Egg. Having that venue was a big help in getting Heaven off the ground, and it wouldn’t have been available to us without Evan’s enthusiasm for The Bellwether. In turn we bring a gaggle of artists to fill that space in evenings when it’s otherwise not used, which is something that is important to him.

SL: The idea of alternative, sustainable artistic models are of particular interest to Culturebot. Can you tell me more about how Bellwether is supported?

DL: We just launched our Membership program in January, so the current model has slightly less to do with financial bolstering than it does with creating a loyal and lovely Bellwether community at this point. Individual donations (both those dedicated to Membership and purely philanthropic) are our main source of revenue outside of ticket sales, and we’re gearing up to apply for various grants.

SL: What kind of resources does Bellwether offers to the artists you produce?

DL: While direct, monetary compensation for our artists is our top priority in terms of expansion, we currently support our artists by providing and paying for everything they need to put on an event. So while we can’t give them money, we ensure that they don’t have to spend any money either. We propose an event budget at the beginning of the production process that includes space rental, supplies, printing, etc. And we do allow them to offer an honorarium to any collaborators they bring on so it never feels on their end like they have to ask people to donate their time. We also do all the marketing and press for each event, which (as artists ourselves) we know is living hell for someone trying to focus on creating.

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