Posts Categorized: Artist Features

The Kjome State: Interview with Artist John Kjome

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Decorah artist John Kjome is a patient man, that’s for sure. He thinks, plans, and meticulously strategizes his next move – both in life and art. Probably checkers too.

Maybe that’s why, after more than four decades creating in one form or another, John is coming back to his artist roots and joining for the first time in studio tours like April’s Bluff Country Studio Art Tour. One thing’s for sure: John has learned in life that no matter what, there’s always a process.

Walking into the Kjome household, you are immediately greeted by art – actually, you’re first greeted by the family dog, Vonnegut, but then it’s art. Limestone countertops, custom cabinets – even the stair risers are things of limestone and geode-marked beauty. In the basement walkout studio, John has, of course, planned every piece of furniture. Heavy things are on castors and most are multipurpose – first it’s a pottery wheel, then it’s a table. The space is efficiently used, to say the least. Their two cats – Seba and Jazz – lounge lazily, one inside a box, the other with a paw hanging over the edge of a shelf, right next to tile cutters and art supplies. For the past 30 years, John, along with his whole family – wife Gail and children Eric, Randi, Jordan and Kaija – have worked together to build a magical, inspiring home where they can comfortably create.

“When we bought it back in 1980, it was the first house sold in Decorah that year – and that was June. Times were tough. It was only this small area then,” John says, gesturing to the front of the house. “But we were happy to have a home.” They’ve since added countless upgrades, stunning improvements, and an addition, part of which houses the art studio. It’s only fitting that a house full of artists would live in a house of art. But if John hadn’t explored his creative side on a whim at the University of Northern Iowa, his life may not have directed him here.

“I had a friend who was taking some classes in the art department and I thought what they were doing was pretty cool. I went to check out it out and I was hooked,” John says. “I took everything from jewelry-making to printmaking. I realized how interesting the processes were – that was really the magic behind it all.”

But it was the 60s, and there was a war going on. John signed up for the Navy. After four years and almost arriving in Viet Nam twice, he decided to go back to school. San Diego State University continued to foster John’s artistic side, and in 1971, he met Gail.

“She lived upstairs and I lived downstairs,” he says. “I sliced up peaches and honey and offered to share. We have been sharing ever since.”

Things were good in California, but when his brother called with the suggestion, “We should build Norwegian looms,” John said, “Okay!”

“I think that was always the plan: to get me back here,” he says. “When I got here, my brother was in Norway. He said, ‘Well, since you’re there, why don’t you enroll at Luther?’”

So he did. That’s when John met famed Northeast Iowa potter and teacher Dean Schwartz.

“I wanted to take the advanced class because I thought I had soooo much experience at San Diego State. But he insisted I start at the beginning,” John says. “Within two hours, I understood. It was the process. It wasn’t, ‘Here’s a pottery wheel; here’s some clay.’ It was about acquiring skills. Master one and move on to the next.”

John loved Schwartz’s teaching so much that he decided to work with him at South Bear that summer as well, taking classes and learning. After, he headed back to San Diego State to finish his BA.

“By that time I realized – I guess we weren’t making looms,” he says.

The semester and summer with Schwartz fueled a fire, so to speak, within John. It also afforded him some good connections. After graduation, he spent two summers working with a colleague of Schwartz’s. Yet another famed potter: Marguerite Wildenhain. Countless hours, days, and nights were spent at Pond Farm, the remote mountaintop home and studio near Guerneville in Northern California. Despite that, John came out of it with only two pots. “And even those I had to sneak out!” It was more about the processes, the learning, than it was about producing.

“It was just a wonderful experience,” he says. “Every moment of it, you just relished.”

So much so that he and Gail, along with their son Eric, wanted to stay Northern California. But at that time, there was literally nowhere to stay; people were living under bridges, waiting for houses and apartments to become available. A flipped a coin directed the Kjomes to Texas, where Gail had relatives. It was there that John learned about carpentry and building houses, which eventually led to his tile work and what he’s well known for: building bathrooms from scratch.

Fate eventually brought the Kjomes back to Decorah. And for John, back to art. In his current projects, John recycles old metal tires. He turns them into tables, making a custom base then tiling the tops. Every piece is unique – different numbers of spokes lead to different kinds of tables, sizes vary greatly, and each tells a story of the past.

“These wheels have a history. I really appreciate the aspect of storytelling,” he says. “It’s not just something I go down to the lumberyard and buy, and that’s fun!”

John is happy to do projects that don’t require hours of time on his hands and knees; tile work is grueling. He hopes to be working on more pots soon as well. The furniture and furnishings seem to be a natural next step for the process that is John’s life.

“I’ve built theses places,” he says with a smile. “Now I want to furnish them.”

Aryn Henning Nichols also enjoys the processes of things. She wishes she could be a little more patient though. She thinks John’s tables are amazing.

Interview with Anoushka Shankar

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Halfway across the world, in a land full of colors, ancient traditions, and life oh-so-different from the Midwest – America, for that matter – a 9-year-old Anoushka Shankar began to play an instrument that would shape her life. The sitar – a plucked string Indian instrument with a long hollow neck – was miniature and specially made for young Shankar. And although it was her first time really playing, the music, it seemed, had always simply BEEN there.

“I was going to concerts from when I was a baby so it’s just kind of an intrinsic part of all my memories,” she writes via email from Australia.

Now 28 years old, Shankar travels extensively around the world with her work.“Right now I’m sitting in a gorgeous outdoor atrium looking at the Sydney Opera House,” she writes via email. “Currently, life is sweet.”
The beautiful musician grew up surrounded by creativity: daughter of the legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar, she couldn’t ask for a better sitar teacher; she also has a musician mother; and many relatives involved in the arts in some way or another. And perhaps most recognizable in the Western world, Shankar’s half sister is that popular jazz singer Norah Jones.

“It’s great being in a really artistic family,” she says. “It creates an atmosphere to learn and soak up art and culture in. It’s not hard to be an individual because we all support each other in our individual feelings and pursuits.”

Those pursuits have led to five albums, a book, acting roles, and experience composing, arranging, and producing music. Shankar debuted in concert and on one of her father’s albums at just 13, and the rate in which her career has advanced since then is amazing, and to Shankar, occasionally a lot to take in. But through high times and low, she still believes her chosen path was the right one. She wasn’t defined by her artistic family, and she always knew had a choice, no matter how genetically predisposed to music she may have seemed.

“Sometimes it was overwhelming, and yes, sometimes I did have thoughts about alternate careers, but I also loved what I was doing and the instrument I was playing,” she says. “So it was more a question of continuing to further my career. I knew I was never entering a lifetime contract, so I knew I could do what I wanted to do, but it was an amazing experience to be able to learn, perform, and travel in the environment that I did.”
Wearing the many hats she does also helps make thing interesting.

“I love keeping my life diverse,” she says. “I honestly have no idea how to live any other way. I grew up between three continents and have always toured and have different inspirations. It’s beneficial to me to have fresh inspiration and new experiences.”

This helps Shankar branch out musically as well. The phrase “World Music” is used to define her genre, but it’s a pretty broad term. Shankar likes to fuse different types of music together to produce something sometimes unexpected.

“As someone that listens to all kinds of music from around the world, I’ve always loved hearing music that can interpret cultures in a fresh and interesting way,” she says. “So that’s something that I have loved to experiment with since I started composing. It’s not just about the sitar for me, though of course that’s the instrument that I’m most comfortable expressing myself with. But I do think it’s a very versatile instrument while still being distinct, which can be extraordinarily effective and fresh when heard out of context.”
And Shankar isn’t willing to put boundaries on the direction or genre her music may tackle in the future. “I’ve learned never to say never,” she says. “I think it’s important to be open.”

Her show, “Sudakshini, a musical journey from North to South India by the Anoushka Shankar Project,” features Shankar on sitar in addition to a touring group of four musicians joining her: Tanmoy Bose – tabla, Ravichandra Kulur – flute and kanjira, Pirashanna Thevarajah – mridangam and Nick Able – tanpura. Shankar elaborates a bit more on what the show will actually be like:
“There are two forms of Indian Classical music, the Hindustani style of the north, to which the sitar and tablas belong, and the Carnatic system of the south. Normally I would explain that we will be playing North Indian music but this tour is unusual because we’re using this opportunity to explore the connections between the two and performing pieces from the South Indian tradition, that one wouldn’t normally hear on the sitar or the tablas. I’m touring with two South Indian musicians who play flute and percussion and we all have such great chemistry on stage together, so the show itself will be a new and different experience for the audience and myself.”

Anoushka Shankar performed as part of the Center Stage Series at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Let ‘Er Wail: An Interview with the Wailin’ Jennys

By Sam Wiles 

The Wailin’ Jennys might just have the coolest name in modern music. The obvious but clever pun on country music legend Waylon Jennings’s name is memorable, rhetorically satisfying, and translates broadly across cultural divides. It symbolizes folk music’s ability to span generations. And it was also an accident.

The band’s first gig – a guitar shop in Winnipeg, Canada – was supposed to be a one-time concert for three Canadian solo artists. But when the show was a big success, the owner of the shop suggested the three women form a band and tour as…the Folk Vixens.

“He thought we should have a name, but he kept trying to give us terrible names like ‘the Folk Vixens,’” Nicky Mehta says with a friendly voice and a self-deprecating sense of humor. “He eventually thought of The Wailin’ Jennys and we thought it was okay. So we made these posters before a concert as a joke, with terrible pictures of us that said ‘The Wailin’ Jennys,’ but they actually ended up getting us a lot of attention.”

Since their beginning in 2002, the all-female folk trio has recorded four albums, topped the US Bluegrass charts, appeared on ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ and rotated personnel a few times.

Mehta, along with fellow Canadians Ruth Moody and Cara Luft, made up the original Wailin’ Jennys until 2004 when Luft went on to pursue a solo career. Enter Annabelle Chvostek, a solo artist from Indie music hotbed Montreal. While the band’s 2004 album 40 Days, recorded with Luft, sounds different than 2006’s Firecracker – recorded with Chvostek – the difference isn’t a deterrent. Chvostek’s distinctly smoky voice is simply an enjoyable change of pace. But in 2007 she left the group to pursue what has been a successful solo career and was replaced by current member Heather Masse, a Maine-born singer who was living in New York. Again, Masse has a distinctively different voice than her predecessors, bringing a slightly smoother element to the group vocally, although the off stage banter is now full of over-the-border jokes.

“There’s some good natured ribbing between us Canadians and Heather,” Mehta says. “We’ll tease her sometimes and she teases us for saying things that Americans don’t usually say, like ‘is it ever cold in here,’ or ‘is it ever hot outside,’ or ‘soory.’”

In spite of the phony rivalry, the group has a great sense of continuity, and that shows through their music. At least some portion of every Wailin’ Jennys song on 40 Days and Firecracker features intricate and beautiful harmonies created by Moody’s soprano, Mehta’s mezzo, and the revolving door of talented altos. The genuine blend of the three voices happens just the way a listener would imagine: organically.

“A lot of times if someone is singing the melody, and when everyone’s familiar with the song, everybody just kind of sings and sees where it goes,” Mehta says.

In addition to of course being talented vocally, The Jennys, as Mehta refers to them, are a cerebral bunch. In an era far removed from the origins of folk, The Jennys understand the difficulty of writing lyrics that sound new but at the same time have a genuine folksiness. For example, the song “Apocalypse Lullaby,” a title that certainly seems post-modern, is inherently soothing. The lyrics sound new, and probably couldn’t have come from a far away time period, but they seem authentic somehow. When Chvostek sings “Spin the speed of light/Tetrahedron blue/One last paradise/You can make for you,” it sounds like bluegrass self help for the modern era. Then some songs sound like old school heartbreak. Others empowering. There’s a non-specific spirituality to The Jennys music that calls on the gospel roots of folk, but is left wholly up to the listeners interpretation (intentionally). Folk music, like The Jennys’ name, is a constant in the American music scene because of its ability to unite old and new followers under a tent of commonality.

“It’s almost a self-revitalizing genre because it spans so many generations. You have people who’ve grown up with the originals,” Mehta says. “And you have the younger bands that are making folk music fresh and new. It can be in world music, or people paying homage to a particular artist. There’s been a lot of evolution in folk music. We’re all trying to make something fresh while trying to honor what’s come before.”

Folk music isn’t the only thing evolving. With the advent of home recording, coupled with the accessibility of the Internet, getting your name and sound out takes a whole new strategy.

“It was harder to get an album made before, but if you got an album made it was easier to get it heard. Now it’s inverted,” Mehta says. “You have to market so much smarter now.”

What’s great about The Jennys is that, no matter how things change, they seem to understand their music and what the genre means in this era of arrogance, cultural indulgence and corporatism.

“It’s more than being quaint. It’s about remembering times when community was more important,” Mehta says. “It’s about embracing the concept of evolution and change, but reminding everyone that we’re part of a global community.”

The Wailin’ Jennys  performed at the Center for Faith and Life at Luther College in Decorah as part of the Center Stage Series.  www.centerstage.luther.edu For more information on Wailin’ Jennys, visit www.thewailinjennys.com.

Sam Wiles enjoyed writing this article, doing the interviews and listening to the music. Additionally, Sam now has plans to star in his own all-female folk trio, the Confusin’ Susans. They will begin touring this summer.