As a young artist I was first inspired to call myself “conceptual” by learning about the work of Yoko Ono. What specifically struck me about her pieces was the fact that she loved to engage the viewer on more than a visual level by inviting them in. My favorite piece of hers was the Telephone Piece, installed at various places including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A phone would sit in a gallery and ring at random and whomever was walking by the phone in the museum at the time would pick it up and say hello and Yoko would be on the other end, calling from wherever she happened to be in the world to speak with this stranger. What I loved about this, and other pieces of hers, was the way it explored the ideas of two people interconnecting who might never connect otherwise and the elements of discovery and surprise that were brought into seemingly ordinary lives by the existential chemical reaction caused by the exchange. In my own art, I am too fascinated by the idea of forcing humanity to engage with itself in spontaneous situations that are beyond the comfort zone of our ordinary lives. In this place, the potential for creativity and magic is endless and that is what steers life into the realms of wonder, reflection and the amazement of the deep and inner soul.
Light years ahead of her time, Ono has been forcing this engagement in her own way for over half a century. I have always wanted to be a part of one of her projects and this past week I got my chance when I received my fresh copy of her new book ACORN (OR Books, 2013) in the mail and so it began – our special collaboration in which my very first task encountered, called Your Piece, was to introduce myself by answering a series of questions:
My name is Kimberly Jo-Anne Nichols and I am an artist, writer, healer and social anthropologist. I was born with the last name of Cooper but published my first book of short stories with my ex-husband’s moniker and it stuck for professional branding reasons. Now, I am not so keen on marketing strategies and tend to miss my surname of birth, which means barrel-maker in German and is shared by a dashing and glamorous cinematic Gary from more elegant days of film gone by. Growing up I was called Kim by my friends, along with its inverse “Mik” for reasons unbeknownst to me. I always felt like Kim sat on me heavily, clumsy with a thud and too stubby for the long-winded poetry that was inherent to my soul. I still cringe today when I tell people my name is Kimberly (which I have demanded since my early 20s) and they call me Kim anyway. My closest friends and family still call me Kimmy as if I have never grown up, which I suppose is true comparatively. My boyfriend calls me Mucker because I carry the Lucille Ball gene that leaves me prone to leave a mess in my wake wherever I step foot –albeit a friendly and whimsical one as opposed to any of the dramatic sort.
I live in Sylmar, California, a place I never imagined I would end up but that is very conducive to the person I have become for the following reasons:
- From my second story bedroom window I can see the various skylines of Los Angeles at night.
- I am thirty minutes away from everything I want to eat, see and do in the city yet far enough away not to deal with traffic and people which I simultaneously reach out for yet repel.
- I am in the middle geographically, by a few hours on each side, of my mother, my brother, my sister, my daughter and my best friends – and in the bed nightly of the only person I’ve ever felt like a true partner beside.
- Within blocks I can step onto a nature trail and spot horses and deer while a perpetual breeze that crests below dim and soars above blustery wafts forth smells of a myriad foreign herbs and plants consistently toward my nostrils.
- There is a large Hispanic population which is the population I have felt most comfortable alongside my entire life beginning with childhood friends and my first true love –both of which welcomed me into their cultures, families and homes with open arms, a zest for life and damn good food from very early on.
I grew up in the California desert – the Coachella Valley to be exact. From one end of a long highway to another you go from the rich and chic Palm Springs through the working class towns that support the resort lifestyle of its bookend cities chock full of golf courses to the far off Indio and then the poor agricultural towns. I have lived in most of these places along the highway at various points in my life. The magical desert landscape is burnt energetically into my bones and I will always feel like I have come home when I see the windmills start appearing as I drive along the Interstate 10 from Los Angeles. The valley represents the entire first half of my life and that makes it equally bitter and sweet. The salmon pink sunsets are unforgettable and the spring smells of creosote and sage spark vivid emotions from the bottom of my belly to the piercing center of my heart.
I have always dreamed of living in the South of France in a barn where I can paint and become a hermit, only stepping out of my comfort zone to take a beat up Volkswagon bug into the cobblestone streets of town to drink with the cranky old men from time to time. It’s still a looming possibility –other than that I could easily end up anywhere. Someone did tell me once that I go wherever the wind decides to blow me.
My favorite places on this planet that I have known thus far are:
- libraries where everyone is forced to be silent and all I have to do is walk hungrily through rows of books waiting to be read, write silently on stacks of notebook paper and recall where the fire in my heart to communicate through words originally began.
- bookstores where I can ponder the stacks for hours with other nerds.
- big stuffed leather chairs in dens of old men that smell like wood and need the help of big fluffy blankets in winter.
- tops of mountain ridges after strenuous hikes where I have that momentary sense of accomplishment on top of the world.
- in the middle of nature where there are rivulets of quiet creeks or rushing rivers of newly melted snow.
- lean-to homesteader shacks in the middle of the desert that act as studio spaces when I want to get away from everyone and create.
- bed with my daughter on weekend afternoons tangled up in the covers while we watch movies together.
- bed with my boyfriend on college football mornings when we rise at six a.m. to watch the sportscasters pick their favorites for the day and dawn has not yet set in on our coast.
- any San Francisco neighborhood, walking with no agenda and open to where the day might take me with nothing but camera, sketchpad and notebook.
- wine country anywhere on the globe, drinking dark reds with strangers and enjoying the instant camaraderie that follows grape-buzzed brains and bellies warmed of rich foods.
- in the middle of the Joshua Tree desert at sundown when the sky turns flaming salmon and the wildflowers spout their final puffs of dusky sweet aroma for the day.
My favorite time is the crack of dawn when most everyone else is still asleep except for me. I like to go outside and be alone with the burgeoning sky, the silence of the world and the awakening sun as it starts to stretch its rays out upon the world. It is a moment of infinite potential and creativity.
My favorite weather is rain, especially summer desert rain after a hot day that mingles with the steam coming off the ground to create a dusty scented, musky dose of humidity. Rain gives you an excuse to stay inside, read books all day, and ignore the phone and the rest of humanity. I love it when it takes a day down to grey and lets it off the hook of its normal duties only to subside later on and leave in its place a quieter, gentler, more clean smelling world.
My favorite color is red, especially in these shades:
- harlot lips
- wine stain on silk dress
- cherry sour ball
- bruised plum
- candy apple
- Chinese lacquer
- 1950s modernism
- pin up fingernail
My favorite sound is waves crashing when I wake up in the morning and am sleeping somewhere close enough to the sea to keep my window open to that morning rush of water onto beach. Or rain pounding on a house in the middle of the night. Or my daughter’s light yet throaty laughter when we are having our deep conversations and I know she is absorbing the things that I am saying into her bones. Or when my boyfriend’s voice goes deep in times when I need his calm, gentle and patient advising. Or loud cicadas on a summer night when I have just eaten a feast with friends and now we are all hanging out under the sky waiting for stars and drinking syrah.
My favorite smells are:
- jasmine, rose, gardenia, dahlia
- earl gray tea
- creosote and sage
- my daughter’s skin
- red wine
My favorite tastes are mushrooms, escargot, stinky cheese, blood sausage, dark chocolate, red wine, cardamom and coriander, salt cured black olives, lamb, rose ice cream, labne cheese, seaweed, matcha, macarons and butterscotch pot de crème.
My inner world is vast, complex, perpetually hungry and restless, magical, peaceful, one with everyone and everything, soulful, humble, vulnerable, constantly striving yet simultaneously wise and detached.
My outer world is carefully manufactured to bypass drama, finally settling around me in a comfortable and warm fashion, full of specifically placed people and things that I have deep love and affection for, and today, thankfully simple.
My regret is that I didn’t go to art school so that I could have learned everything I’ve had to teach myself arduously and without proper critical feedback.
My pride is my daughter that I raised as a single mother who is simply one of the most emotionally intelligent, loving and beautiful human beings I know.
My attachments in life are mostly to people. I am very sensitive and once I have entered into an energetic cord with someone, it’s hard to let go. It’s why I have always remained good friends with my exes as well as old friends. Right now my strongest connections are to my daughter, my boyfriend, my mom, sister and brother, my niece and nephew and a handful of close friends. From there everything is secondary although I am quite connected to my journals and artwork.
Now that Yoko has me fully grounded in my purest identity in the present, she then switches her tactics from having me “be seen” to having me start “to see”. From this space I am clear for reflection and for receiving the small gifts of beauty that fall into my lap as I meander through Yoko’s prompts.
What follows is a series of pieces that either ask me specific questions, bring me into the life of Yoko as she self-reveals some piece of information to me followed by a moment of mutual reflection or she gives me an assignment to perform that can take place in the realm of my ordinary life.
Earth Piece #4 asks me to measure the horizon line from my current viewpoint in my office. I realize that within my office I can see through the hallway and out the window of my second story bedroom to the valley floor of Los Angeles. Because there are doorways and a hallway between this view and myself, the actual horizon line from this point only reaches about seven inches in length. Yet in seven inches I am able to see twenty different cities blowing up the sky with fireworks at once on the Fourth of July. I also sometimes see across the street into the window where the young man watches x-rated movies on an overblown television without being aware that I can see slices of skin through the semi-open blinds. So my horizon is rich with Southern California pink sunsets, patriotism and porn.
Sky Piece #9 asks me to imagine jumping into the sky and as I sit still and do this I realize the same thing is happening to my brain that occurs when I meditate.
Cleaning Piece #3 asks me to try not to say anything negative about anybody for three days, forty-five days and three months and to see what happens. I will start on that right now…
…and on it goes through a series of sound pieces, dance pieces, life pieces and dream pieces—each small offerings from Yoko inviting us to find something special in the sublime, to rekindle the fire of being alive and to recall first and foremost that life is the greatest form of art – far more poignant and fleeting than any painting hanging sterile on a wall.
Article written by Kimberly Nichols
Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey and an art work titled The Fool. She has recently embarked on a journey of study in shamanic and medicine lore and wisdom under a series of respected teachers. Follow her on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.