Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Medicine, No Sugar

(Light sculpture by Thomas Haagen)

by Zinta Aistars

Yet a sweet pain, stitched and mended seams of heart
where the rips began. There you touch
now, delicate fingered, clean scrubbed,
where you tore and prodded
before: sharp, with cruel and reckless abandon,
that blood vein that would weaken me most, drop me
to my knees, shoulders sagging, scooped
empty of pulp. You plug that vein shut
with the soft pad of your thumb,
distracting me with your winning smile.
Hurt still? you start to ask, trying hard,
chastised with the knowledge of heedless wrong,
but the fear of reply puts a fist to your mouth.
You want to know without asking,
without suffering the whip
of words, their bloody slash,
drip, and splatter
on your neatly polished floor.
Messes disturb you.
I hand you the mop;
I’ll hold the bucket.
We need the words, the slash exposing raw pink
flesh to bandages, precision stitches pulled taut,
cut places stronger now than uncut.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

The Pacific flares like a silk skirt
rising up Marilyn’s sunbronzed thighs –
edges frilled and foaming lacy and white
over the hips of boulders
rounded and curved
by wave upon wave upon crashing wave
upon endless wave, riding their smooth sides.

Full moon punctured sky overhead,
we lean into each other
on a bench made of unpeeled logs:
watching, listening, hypnotized
by the frill and the fall,
the crash and the rise.

Silent, your hand reaches for mine.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Double Jeopardy

by Zinta Aistars

Be still my silly human heart
at the sweet heat of those animal eyes!
Dog, you disarm me.
I’m left panting, my ear cocked
for the dance and clatter of your claws
on my once unmarred kitchen floor.
Press of your small curved back
against mine all those barren nights
our favorite man is not home.
You lay your furred head on his pillow,
I snuggle in cozy to my own wistful dreams
we both share: of his key in the door.
How can he resist you? the allure
of your cold, wet, grubby nose
nudging his warm palm when it hangs
loose from the arm of his favorite chair,
lost in a book, lost in his human reverie…
you slurp him back to attention,
and we both glory in his sudden laugh.
We both hum in contented pleasure
at the warm scratch and pat of that hand.

Friday, October 07, 2005

To See With New Eyes

by Zinta Aistars

(Published in the September 2005 issue of Encore magazine, Kalamazoo, Michigan.)

"Any weekday afternoon or Saturday you can find them… aspiring young artists rushing past with arms full of tackle boxes and portfolios as they excitedly enter a brightly lit studio…"

—Kirk Lowis, director of SWMVAA

How many tongs on a fork? No fair looking in the silverware drawer. Bring up the image of a fork in your mind. Can you see it? Can you see how many tongs?

"It’s surprising how many people see and yet don’t see," says Kirk Lowis, 37-year-old founder and director of the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy (SWMVAA) in Kalamazoo. "We look at things, at people, at the world around us every day, but we fail to see. The artist is one who has learned to see."

Kirk Lowis teaches very young artists how to see as most do not. Growing up in an artistic family, he never lacked for encouragement to explore his creativity, but when Kirk sought art classes in his school and community, he found very little that went beyond the basics.

"I was a creative kid who was looking for a mentor willing to make a commitment to the developing artist," he says. "Sure, I could find art classes in one area or another. School offered beginning art classes. But I was frustrated that I couldn't find a place to explore art in a long-term and cumulative manner. I swore someday I would do something about it."

Before that someday arrived, Kirk pursued his education. While still in high school, he spent time in England and Wales with a touring theatre company, learning theatre design. After high school, he trained at North Carolina School of the Arts, then transferred to Kalamazoo College where he majored in art.

"At Kalamazoo College, I had to prepare a body of work as part of my graduation requirements. In fact, I did two: one project in performance art and the other an exhibit of paintings. Putting together that kind of body of work helped me to develop my style and find my voice."

Kirk earned his master's in art at Goucher College in Maryland, then returned to Kalamazoo, taking a teaching position at The Montessori School of Kalamazoo. The Montessori method: work autonomously, hands-on, and be an independent thinker.

"Working at the Montessori school was a fantastic opportunity," Kirk says. "The best teaching happens when you are learning yourself. I brought the Montessori method to art, and in 1990, I opened the Southwestern Michigan Visual Arts Academy in the Dewing Building, downtown Kalamazoo. I was ready to keep that promise to myself to fill the void I had encountered as an art student."

Initially, Kirk worked both at The Montessori School and at SWMVAA. The new academy was established as a non-profit school, and for nearly five years Kirk's time was unpaid. He spent his free time looking for students, talking about the academy to art teachers at area schools, putting up posters and passing out fliers. He had no idea how to run a non-profit organization, but he knew that he wanted the academy to be something that belonged to the community. It didn't take long to assemble his first class.

"I was looking for the kind of art student that was not a dabbler," Kirk says, "but someone who shows the right attitude and commitment to developing their art."

Recalling those beginning years, Kirk says, "I suppose ignorance was bliss. I had no idea how little I knew, and so there was nothing to stop me." The school grew quickly, demanding more of Kirk's time. He realized he had to focus on one goal in his life, and so he left The Montessori School to devote himself fully to the academy. As he learned more about the workings of a non-profit organization, he made a decision about relying only on tuition, private donations, and fundraising.

"It's an unusual way to run a non-profit," he admits, "but it's important to me that we answer to the community. In my earlier years of working with theatre companies that relied heavily on grants, I often saw that once grant money dried up, the company folded. But I wanted the academy to be a part of the Kalamazoo community, and for the people of this community to feel like it belongs to them, not one that relies on a grant to function."

Kirk's fundraising motto is: "Never ask a stranger for money." And so the academy opened its doors to young artists of the community, supported by the community, to give back to the community, inviting every stranger to become a friend. First befriended are the students. Offering courses that include painting, figure drawing, advanced drawing, 3-D design, photography, film, sculpture, theatrical design, illustration, Claymation, and art history, classes never have more than six students per instructor to ensure individualized attention. Interested young artists may fill out an application for admission by calling 269.345.7630, or online at www.smwaa.org . Based on the applications, students are invited to an interview and are requested to bring a portfolio of 15 to 20 recent works. The selected new students may then begin the Foundation semester, which teaches drawing skills and technique, color and design theory. Once completed, students may then choose elective classes to pursue their particular interests. They are placed in classes not according to age, but by skill level.

To befriend the community, Kirk opens the doors of the academy regularly with solo exhibits—every student has their turn—and by participating in Art Hops, a monthly event during which area galleries and businesses open their doors to the public as they exhibit the artwork of area artisans. "Art Hops are a way to get in touch with the Kalamazoo community while giving our young artists their first opportunity to exhibit their work."

Kirk does not feel that SWMVAA competes with public schools with the art education he provides, but that he complements the art classes in public schools. "We are not a replacement, but a supplement. Unfortunately, when schools have budget cuts, the arts are often the first to go, but we can help fill that gap. Art teachers in Kalamazoo know about the academy, and they are often the ones who send students our way."

Fifteen years into teaching young area artists, SWMVAA has now moved to 132 W. South Street, across from the Kalamazoo Public Library. The move, Kirk says, was the greatest challenge the academy had met in its existence, converting office space to school space while trying to keep a regular class schedule. But the rewards of watching SWMVAA grow, Kirk readily acknowledges, are great. "Every student I've been able to help is my reward," he says. "There is nothing like helping a new, young artist develop their own unique style and the confidence to express it. I tell my students the myth of the starving artist dies here. You can find ways to live your dream."

Kirk Lowis, standing in the gallery space of the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy, the walls hung with bright and provocative artwork by his young pupils, is proof of that. How many tongs? He smiles and raises four fingers.

SIDEBAR - Jill Kreling, Young Artist

Jill knew she had "arrived" as an artist when her artwork was censored by her high school principal. "I take every day objects and I try to see them in new and different ways," she says about her art. This particular painting shows a baby doll hanging upside down by a wire tied around its ankle. Aptly, the painting is entitled, "Hanging." Jill's art teacher at her high school was impressed with the painting, and he asked if she would like to exhibit it along with the work of other students.

Shortly after the painting was exhibited, Jill was called down to her principal's office. The painting, her principal told her, would have to come down. The image of the hanging doll was too provocative, it seemed.

"I suppose it makes a person think about child abuse and neglect," Jill muses. "Although I'm not sure why that would be a subject to avoid thinking about."

Jill had been a student at SWMVAA since she had been 10 years old. When she shared her experience with her mentor, Kirk Lowis, at the academy, he was inspired to develop a class for his young art students to learn about issues of censorship, freedom of expression, and how First Amendment rights applies to the arts. The Board of Trustees at SWMVAA drafted a letter in response to the censorship and sent it to Jill's school and the school's board. Even so, the painting was taken down and no acknowledgement was received for the letter.

"I've always felt supported here," Jill speaks of the academy, her smile evidence of her fondness for both the school and its director. Lasting friendships? She lightly jabs a pencil into her mentor's shoulder. Former teachers have become today's colleagues and friends.

Encouraged by her mentor, Jill included "Hanging" in her portfolio when she graduated from high school and applied to art schools. She applied to Cleveland Institute of Art, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus College of Art & Design, and Minneapolis College of Art & Design. She was accepted to all.

"Hanging" was shown in the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts where it received honorable mention in a juried show. Jill is today a student at Cleveland Institute of Art, where she received a scholarship based, in part, on her portfolio.

The controversial painting now hangs in Jill's bedroom, where it reminds her daily to take risks for her art and always strive to see what others perhaps do not.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SMVAA, see http://www.smvaa.org/

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Berry Picking

by Zinta Aistars

We pick words like berries,
avoiding the green and hard ones,
popping the occasional sun-ripened
sweet one
in our mouths, staining lips
the shock color of berry blood.

I bite one between my teeth.
It snaps, splitting skin,
its meat soft mush on the tongue.

I wrote once of hunger.
For words, for the nourishing life sacrament
they bring, feeding the soul,
kicking the wan spirit
in its near death agony
back into life: a pulse,
then another, blip, and blip,
fed with juice and spice
and belief that after death
is new life,
the flavor of sun-ripened berries.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Father Mike's Community of Faith: The Life Sentence of Mike Maslowsky

by Zinta Aistars

When Mike Maslowsky was given six months to live, he realized that being a rising star in the corporate world gave little meaning to a man's life.

Published in the Spring 2004 issue of LuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine.

“…what ever you did for the least…you have done for me….”
Matthew 24:45

How to measure a man’s success? How to gauge the value of a man’s life or define the depth of its meaning?

For Mike Maslowsky ’70, a defining moment came in his early 30’s when he was handed a merciless diagnosis in a doctor’s office: prostate cancer, six months to live. Stunned, he looked at what he had built around him, measuring.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he was educated in the States and the Far East, his family following his Air Force father to Japan, where he finished high school. Maslowsky returned to the States to attend Kalamazoo College, drawn to the College’s focus on diverse global experiences, majoring in history. His law degree came from Northwestern School of Law. He was a congressional speechwriter in Washington D.C., a law clerk of the U.S. District Court for Oregon, then a lawyer for a prestigious firm in Portland. Success was measured by the size of his client base—banks, hospitals, corporations—and in the hours he poured into his office work. He had been a man dedicated to career, recreation, and pleasure.

Maslowsky was not only stunned, he was embarrassed.

“Some questions cannot be left unasked,” Maslowsky says. “I looked at the life I was told I would soon lose, and I saw how self-centered all my achievements had been. What was there to put into an obituary? I was haunted by regrets and shame. I felt,” Maslowsky takes a slow, deep breath, “shallow.”

Maslowsky was overwhelmed with regrets for all the missed opportunities – “to be a good man, to express kindness towards others. No one regrets that they haven’t worked harder.”

And then: a second chance. News reached him of a misdiagnosis. As suddenly as it was handed down to him, the death sentence had been lifted from him. Maslowsky had gotten a wake-up call, and he had no intention of ignoring it. He now understood his mortality, and he began to search for meaning beyond the courtroom.

“I was raised Catholic, but religion had not played an important part in my life. I realized I had to think seriously about my spirituality. I wasn’t sure I believed in God or the church, but it was time for me to search for answers. I won another large case with my firm’s managing partner, and I should have felt wonderful about it, and yet… I didn’t. Something was missing from my life.”

Maslowsky started to attend church services, and he also took time to volunteer in the community.

“The first time I had to help someone different than myself, however,” he says, “I couldn’t do it.” Realizing the limit of his comfort zone only increased Maslowsky’s determination to expand it. It was a time when his education and experiences at Kalamazoo College would become invaluable.

“One of the most important parts of my education at Kalamazoo College was the K-Plan. My study abroad in Germany, career internships working in the government in Washington D.C., another internship in New York working with the disabled, all exposed and challenged me to examine the parameters in my own life, to look for connections with people where I may not have imagined them to be. I learned a healthy respect for our differences but also our commonalties. At this time in my life, I would have to return to what I had been taught as a young man.”

Maslowsky quit the prestigious law firm and traveled to Rome to spend the next four years in a seminary. The respected lawyer once again became the student.

“I went from being one of the youngest and brightest to, at age 35, one of the oldest and least knowledgeable,” Maslowsky smiles.

Some of Maslowsky’s biggest challenges lay ahead. He was ordained in 1987, served two years as associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Salem, Oregon, but then returned to Rome for his doctorate in theology. Back in Oregon, Portland’s then archbishop, William Levada, sent Maslowsky on a mission: assess the St. Anthony Parish, located in one of the poorer sections of the city. Thinking that this parish would have to close, Maslowsky found a basement church with cracked walls and windows, exposed pipes, collapsing ceilings. The property was littered with garbage and discarded tires. The parishioners were few, but passionate about their faith. Impressed with the strength of their faith, Maslowsky determined to not only keep the church open, but to make it thrive.

Although it would take over a decade, the resurgence of St. Anthony’s is nothing short of, well, miraculous. If God helps those who help themselves, Maslowsky knew how to help himself and this parish. Remaining an active member of the Oregon State Bar Association, he would bring his legal and business skills to join with his theology skills to fund, build, and inspire. Together with his parishioners, Maslowsky tapped into his business network, sought financial support from federal tax credits and state guarantees, used his legal expertise in nonprofit housing, and on five acres built a village centered about the church. Today, the St. Anthony Village is a nonprofit, low income housing community with assisted-living units for over a hundred residents, 24 cottages for Alzheimer’s patients, a daycare center for children 4 months to 5 years full to its capacity for 80 children, a series of adjacent gardens, walking paths, a reflection pond, and, at the center of the Village, a new church.

It took $12 million to build the Village. Maslowsky modeled its design after the Italian villages where he studied. European towns were often built around a plaza, and in the plaza, a church. The community came together in the plaza, gathering all generations. At St. Anthony’s Village, where Maslowsky is fondly referred to as Father Mike, the idea is to encourage the connections between individuals as well as between generations.

“No one likes to live in isolation,” Maslowsky says. “The Village is a place that fosters relationships. Here, we focus on the commonalities between us instead of the differences, the hope that we can bring to each other, and the social integration of a community.”

St. Anthony’s Village today has 425 families registered in its church, but the parish operates as a separate entity from the Village. Maslowsky is president of St. Anthony’s Village Enterprises, now with plans for possible similar developments in north Portland, in Corvallis where Oregon State University is located, with a village to include student housing, and in southeast Oregon, providing housing for special needs and young adults with various disabilities and low income housing. Representatives from the archdiocese in Ohio and Georgia are studying the Village as a model for similar villages. About half of the Village residents are Catholic, but church affiliation is not a perquisite for residency. About 80 percent of the residents are on Medicaid.

“Financing has always been difficult,” Maslowsky says. “When the economy is hurting, it affects us as well. But we are a village here, a family, and evicting anyone due to financial problems is not an option.”

When the Oregon Department of Human Services has sent out notices due to budget cuts to Medicaid recipients that their benefits will be cut, St. Anthony’s Village has had to face, and will continue to face, financial challenges. For Maslowsky, he must continually balance being a business man and a parish shepard, bringing out the best of both. Saving the parish once will not be enough; he must continually fight to keep the Village viable.

Maslowsky’s fight for the parish continues, but if he should ever again think himself alone, he has only to step outside of his office and walk one of the paths, towards the center of the Village to the church he helped not only build, but design.

“I’m a frustrated architect,” he admits.

While Maslowsky was the idea man behind the project, the Village church was the first in Oregon history to be designed by a women-owned architectural firm. At approximately $160 per square foot, Nancy Merryman and Diana Moosman built the church to Maslowsky’s specifications, based on the churches he had seen in Italy while drawing on Northwest church architecture for inspiration. The cost was about 25 percent less than a lower-end custom house.

Maslowsky’s wish to have a design similar to hands holding something precious between them resulted in two arcing walls that embrace the congregation while opening to the surroundings. At one end, the walls open to welcome parishioners into a foyer where a simple and elegant sculpture, designed by Maslowsky, centers a baptismal font, illuminated by stained glass windows showing the trinity and the 12 tongues of fire that descended on Christ’s apostles. At the opposite end of the arcing wall are the altar and another stained glass window that spills light and color across the front of the church. A bell tower rises above with one cross that shines towards the busy street just outside the Village, and another cross that shines across the Village.

As he strolls the winding paths of the Village, Maslowsky is Father Mike, greeting everyone he passes, resting a hand on the shoulder of an elderly resident for a moment as he asks about her health, chuckling at a scampering child in the play area of the daycare center, giving direction to a young man working in the gardens, stopping to accept a cookie in the kitchen.

“I used to get irritated as a student at Kalamazoo College at the idea of ‘gracious living,’” he remembers. “But it is perhaps the most important lesson I learned there, if not at that time, a lesson to return to me later in life. I realized life is not about living in comfort, but about rising to the level of the noble, to pursue the good and true , to become richer by the act of giving to others. Life is about the connections we make with other people. Life is about community.”