Arts preview: Miranda July learns how to be vulnerable

  • Photo by Mike Mills
By Columbus Alive
From the November 14, 2013 edition

Not long ago Miranda July stumbled upon her first story, written when she was seven. Titled “Lost Child!”, the illustrated tale tells of a young girl who gets lost because she was following a voice in the sky. While it’s cliché now to use the words “quirky” and “vulnerable” to describe July, the words are apt when talking about this particular story.

“It kind of made me laugh because it’s so much like the work I make now,” July said during a phone interview in mid-October. “I haven’t progressed at all, or I’ve been pretty consistent. I think actually most artists will find if they dig back there is a thread that runs through everything.”

July will trace her own artistic thread (“Origins are always the most interesting part,” she said) during her upcoming artist talk Monday, Nov. 18 at CCAD. Sharing a name with that seminal story, the artist talk will be parts retrospective, lecture and audience participation, though she’s cautious to provide a comfortable environment for all involved.

“When I’m in an audience, I’m horrified,” July said. “Even raising my hand at an author Q&A is really scary for me, so I have a lot of empathy for that position. You should get to go and be a spectator if that’s what feels best to you. … I try to give a little room there so if anyone’s half-way hoping to participate I can facilitate that and the rest don’t have to.”

Though she’s only given the LOST CHILD! artist talk two other times, July said structuring it this way helps the lecture feel unique from the previous engagements. It also helps the audience see the event as less of a lecture and more an experience, something “really special and like it could only happen there for each person.”

The focus, still, is on July, as it should be. During the talk, July will recount her early creative life, from “Lost Child!” till now, and how those early days fueled her interdisciplinary approach to art. It’s an approach July said came as a result of not feeling at home in any one discipline.

As such, her career to date includes, among many such diverse works, a participatory website, designing an interactive sculpture garden, writing, directing and acting in movies and authoring a book of short stories. She’s also currently penning her first novel, “The First Bad Man,” which is due to Scribner early next year (“It’s kind of up to them when they want to publish it,” she said).

Through the exploration of those different disciplines, she’s also learned to hone that vulnerability to a sharpened edge. The quirks might still abound, but their edges cut deep, and the honesty is brutal.

Follow that underlying darkness back far enough, and you can see its roots in July’s earliest works. She was a teenager when she decided her life would follow her art. From that moment forward her work was aggressive and tough, “more punk,” and owing large debts to the Riot Grrl scene of the Pacific Northwest in the ’90s. But the toughness was really a shield, she said.

“As I’ve gotten more confident it’s been easier to show my vulnerability, and I think knowing you can be vulnerable and nothing bad will happen to you is sort of like a super power,” July said. “Once you really feel that, you can do anything and you don’t have to worry when you’re on stage or you’re writing because in fact the more vulnerable you are, the more likely you’re going to get to a place that means something or feels like something.

“The vulnerability part of it might feel more excruciating or noticeable to someone else, but to me it’s kind of like a tool,” she continued. “When I was younger and I felt more scared, that’s when my work was in a way more tough. So hopefully it’ll keep going this way.”