Winter 2014 VISIONS Cover Story: Masters of Creativity

Even in this “university of science and technology,” we find ourselves surrounded each day by stories about the humanities: art, music, theatre, English, the social sciences. Our faculty are leaders in these areas; our students excel.

In this issue, we highlight a select few: graduate students (and 2013 graduates) in Iowa State’s master of fine arts programs in Creative Writing and Environment (in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of English) and Integrated Visual Arts (in the College of Design). These students ask questions, take risks, experiment, innovate, and, ultimately, create.

Iowa State’s three-year MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment emphasizes study in creative writing – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama – that encourages writers to identify and explore in their stories and lyric impressions the complex influences of place, the natural world, and the environmental imagination. Through a program of study that includes a rigorous combination of creative writing workshops, literature coursework, environmental fieldwork experience, interdisciplinary study, and intensive one-on-one work with a major professor, the program offers gifted writers an original and intensive opportunity to document, meditate on, mourn, and celebrate the complexities of our transforming natural world.

The MFA in Integrated Visual Arts at Iowa State is a distinctive and unique interdisciplinary program offering integrative study among a combination of the following areas: ceramics, computer applications, drawing, textiles, illustration, jewelry/metalsmithing, painting, printmaking, photography, furniture design, and areas outside of art and design. The program offers unique opportunities for collaboration with diverse students and faculty from around the world in art and design programs that represent a wide spectrum of professional activities. This dynamic interdisciplinary environment allows students to develop a personal visual language, refine media skills, and work on projects addressing social and environmental concerns within a global context.

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Cover Story: The Blackbird Problem

I never feared birds until one staked a territorial claim on my favorite bike path. Red-winged blackbirds aren’t large, compared to, say, falling branches, lightning, nuclear missiles, or other things that might unexpectedly drop from above. Most have a pleasant if raspy song that I had grown accustomed to hearing around the fields and woodlands of central Iowa. I never heard this one sing. He was a little feathered bomb with talons.

That particular stretch of bike path had been closed off for construction for several months, and when it reopened in June I was pleased to have my shortcut to work restored. The path wound between a soccer field and the campus coal-fired power plant. A narrow strip of sycamore trees and a drainage ditch marched parallel for a hundred yards or so. On cold mornings, steam rising from the cooling towers smelled, inexplicably, of maple syrup – even the hard-hatted man who gave tours of the power plant couldn’t explain why – and the blades of a lone wind turbine, newly constructed, would scissor out of the cloud.

I never got a good look at the blackbird. I assume he perched among the leafy summer foliage of the sycamore trees, eyeing his targets from above. There would be silence and then, suddenly, his shadow fluttering on the sidewalk just over my shoulder, all wings and frantic excitement, and I’d feel the thunk thunk THWAP as he slammed into my helmet multiple times, claws extended.

Passersby had various means of dealing with this problem. Helmets were much more in evidence among the bicyclists, who could be found in knots around campus when five o’clock rolled around, discussing tactics and alternate routes. Pedestrians had it worse, and more than one simply flung their hands over their heads and ran for it. One enterprising fellow took to carrying sticks, which he banged overhead in an effort to distract the blackbird from targeting his scalp.

After the first two or three days of relentless one-bird mobbing, my heart started pumping with useless adrenaline as I approached the urban jungle of the blackbird’s territory. I’d brace myself for impact – thunk thunk THWAP – as I pedaled furiously toward University Boulevard and freedom.

I admit it: I was scared of the bird. I started to wonder how long it would be before he learned to abandon helmets and go for the exposed skin of the neck, or worse yet, the eyes. Advice gleaned from the Internet suggested I should stare directly at the bird or bark like a dog; instead I kept my head tilted downward, gaze fixed on the pavement where the telltale shadow would appear.

He was perfectly democratic in choosing his victims, undiscriminating between bicyclists and pedestrians, red helmets and blue ones, height or weight or any other factor that might make a two-ounce bird think twice. I began to wonder how much of his energy he spent dive-bombing the unsuspecting public. Did he have time to find food? Court a mate? Build a nest? Certainly I never heard him sing.

I began taking a different route home from work, when I wasn’t in a hurry. It gave me time to contemplate the little strip of habitat that the blackbird had claimed his own, squashed beside black smokestacks and furnaces that consumed an average of 390 tons of coal each day, some shipped by rail and barge from as far away as Colorado. It wasn’t much of a prize, the long-stemmed grasses straggling along the ditch, the sycamore trees all in single file to fit the space allotted.

Then again, a more selective soul might find little to love in Iowa these days – even the remnant squares of prairies abandoned in pioneer cemeteries had begun to fall under the plow – and maybe little to love in all of America, as national parks turned into tourist traps, and highways, cities and carbon billowing out of power plants wrenched landscapes into geometries meant to fit human desires.

Surely the blackbird’s fierce protection had something in it to admire, something to emulate: his crazy passion for the place where he found himself, his full-bodied love of it. Surely I could learn, as he did, to value the in-between places, the silver thread of ditchwater, a single row of trees.

One July day in the waning summer no shadow came fluttering up over my shoulder on my daily trek to work. I never knew where he went – whether he found a new tree and new unkempt ditch to protect, or fell prey to a prowling housecat, or simply gave up. He never returned. I found that I was sorry.

ImageAbout the writer:
Melissa L. Sevigny is a writer and poet from Tucson, Ariz. She graduated in spring 2013 from ISU’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment. Melissa has worked as a writer in the fields of sustainable agriculture, water policy, and planetary science.

 

 

ImageAbout the artist:
Elita Pan was born and raised in China. She is now a graduate student in the Integrated Visual Arts program, where her focus is on painting and drawing as well as graphic design. Her work is inspired by Weiwei Ai, Henry Matisse, Anselm Kiefer, Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas, and Hung Liu.

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2 thoughts on “Winter 2014 VISIONS Cover Story: Masters of Creativity

  1. I love how Melissa’s story, “The Blackbird Problem”, develops quickly, seamlessly, into much more than the territorial tale of a solitary red-winged blackbird. The bird’s indiscriminate attacks upon passersby on a transformative stretch of college campus bike path seems to be obversely proportionate to an unlovable direction America has taken, as she describes “national parks turned into tourist traps, and highways, cities and carbon billowing out of powerplants wrenched landscapes into geometries meant to fit human desires”. Melissa’s watchful admiration of this bird and its dive-bombing shadow made me wonder what it was really trying to protect. Her vision is as attuned to the minutiae of her surroundings as it is to the larger landscape. Students of the world, such as this young astute writer, are poised to effectively change the freeways of destruction we are rushing down blindly. A ‘selective soul’, indeed.

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