Our Newest Guest Speaker, Filmmaker, Playwright, and Novelist Linda Nieves Powell Visits the YouNiversity!
My Artist Journey
By: Linda Nieves-Powell
When I think of my journey as an artist, I don’t know what came first. Not sure if it was the need to explore a personal issue or whether I was just born creative because of the environment I grew up in, or maybe it was both. Because as far back as I can remember I was surrounded by my father’s art. Whether it was displayed on the walls of our tiny, upper East Side apartment in Manhattan or in the way he banged out songs on the piano keys, I was a student of his process. I observed his intensity, his need to perfect a skill, and his work ethic. I wanted to be like him. But I needed to find my own thing.
There is a picture of me at three years old dancing salsa with Papi on my birthday. Dancing had become my thing. I was a natural dancer and I loved perfecting the latest James Brown move, especially for relatives who would cheer me on. I was pretty good too. And thanks to Papi, his music was the soundtrack to my childhood, a mix of original Salsa, Boogaloo, and Rock & Roll.
But my purpose, my reason for creating art, would not reveal itself until it needed to. I had to find my motivation and that process began with a fish out of water story. The one where my Puerto Rican parents decided to move out of Manhattan and into the lily-white suburbs of Long Island when I was nine years old. It was a trip from Earth to Mars; stuck on a planet I’d hope to be rescued from. Had I been the kind of Puerto Rican that had blond hair and blue eyes, or red hair with freckles, like my grandfather, I’m not sure I’d have anything to write about. I would’ve blended in, end of story. But no, I was born tigreña, brown, wavy hair, brown eyes, and always carrying an extra ten pounds on my hips and stomach, making me the curviest pre-pubescent girl in my school;
the very antithesis of all the other nine year-olds in the predominately Irish community of Long Beach. And of course, when you stand out, when you’re the odd girl, the funny looking one, people have a tendency of making sure you know good and well that you are not as lucky or gorgeous as they are. Which makes no sense to me because if one is so lucky then there should be more compassion for those who aren’t as lucky. So, I was bullied badly for three years. Bricks, kicks, spit to the face almost every week, until my aunt offered to sell her house to my dad in Staten Island when I was 12 years old. The good news, I was surrounded by more ethnically authentic versions of me. The bad news, since I chose, as a means of survival of course, to drop the mother tongue to adopt the Long Island dialect, style, and culture, I was faced with a new challenge in this new place. I had to become a Puerto-Rican in the way the other Puerto-Rican’s imagined I should be. I was now different again in a land of people who looked just like me. I would eventually learn to change my stripes once again. And while I struggled to find a new persona or a place that accepted me for me, I spent my time alone, escaping my reality, overdosing on Vogue magazines, television sitcoms, and classic movies. And yet, that was the worst place for me to escape to, as my face, my body, my look, my personality was nowhere to be found in any media. Unless of course the image had to do with an arrest of a Latina hooker or Latino drug addict featured on the six o’clock news.
Was I that different? Could I ever find a place to call home? Those were the questions that kept me up at night. And many nights I prayed to wake up a Barbie doll, blond hair, blue eyes, tall, and skinny, so I’d know for once what it felt like to be normal. I was desperate to be someone else, desperate to blend in, and I spent many years in search of being that person.
It wasn’t until I had ended a toxic 5-year relationship in my twenties that I’d come face to face with my destiny. On the night of the breakup I’d bought a ticket to see an off-Broadway show called Spic-O-Rama starring a young actor named John Leguizamo.
I sat in the third row from the stage and I watched this brilliant Latino comedic actor morph into a variety of different characters. He went from thug, to a Shakespearean actor and a homeboy, beat after beat he developed a new persona. In that moment, I had a discovered two things that would kick start the most prolific artistic period of my life: One, I realized that I’d been living most of my life changing shape and color in order to navigate the sometimes ethnically insensitive world I lived in. Two, I needed to write my own show. I remember looking at Leguizamo and saying, I can do that! Here was my chance to tell my story. And so I chose playwriting as my way of doing that.
The next day I was filled with so much inspiration and pride that I spent eight hours writing a series of monologues entitled, “Rice and Beans and Other Rican Things”, a dramedy about three fictional Puerto Rican siblings who trade in their ethnicity to navigate their world as non-Latinos. After I wrote it, not realizing that I’d work through a number of drafts before I had perfected the idea, I shared it with a few close family members and friends. After receiving great reviews I decided to go to the library to see what I could do with this play. I had no idea where to turn. No one in my family had ever written a play. I had to figure out the next move on my own.
I spent the next few days in the library (the old school method of research way before the Internet arrived full force), just trying to figure out how I could get my work on stage. I browsed through trade magazines, books, and watched anything that had anything to do with performing arts, theater, or stage. I couldn’t find anything or maybe I just didn’t know what to look for. Then a librarian, after seeing me there every day, walked over to me and handed me a binder. She said, “I’m not sure this will help, but you should browse through it.” When I opened the binder it was filled with a variety of flyers, some old, some new, and various arts newsletters published by theater companies in New York City. Then something caught my eye. It was a dated newsletter promoting a playwriting workshop at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, a beginner’s playwriting workshop that met on Tuesday nights. Amazing find! So I can say now that there is much truth in that well-known quote by Paul Coehlo, the author of The Alchemist, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
These events make up the start of my artistic journey. “Rice and Beans and Other Rican Things” was submitted to a Los Angeles Writing Competition and out of over 3000+ submissions I’d won a top 25 spot and an Honorable Mention. Not bad for a first time playwright. Sometimes all you need is a pat on your back from the universe to keep you on your journey. And my journey would continue for many, many years.
I can’t say that the artist journey has been an easy one. It hasn’t been. Once you demystify the process of getting your art seen and bought, you realize a few cold facts; it’s competitive, it’s political, and sometimes it’s cliquish and very unfair. However, when you find your audience, your supporters, it’s truly rewarding. I guess it’s no different than watching judges on a singing competition fight over a contestant. One will despise the talent, while another thinks the talent is the next big thing. It happens. I was not everyone’s cup of tea. But I was perfect for so many others.
Very often when artists embark on their journey they think everybody is going to love their work and every gallery, theater, etc., is going to get it. The thing I learned early on is that art is a business and every business has a mission statement. If only I had learned that sooner to protect my fragile ego. I learned that no matter how many times I send in a submission, if it’s not the right match, my work will continue to be rejected. I had to find the group of people or organization that were interested in my ideas, my vision.
Since 1993 I have written several plays, some award winning, some very financially successful. I wrote a novel that sold in 2008 to Simon & Schuster entitled, “Free Style”, and a short story entitled, “The Fly Ass Puerto Rican Girl From The Stapleton Projects” that was published in an anthology edited by Patricia Smith, entitled “Staten Island Noir”. I am a filmmaker, with many festival credits, but I’m still a student, playing and experimenting with this form. I’ve also become a photographer. Whatever tool that helps me seek answers to the bigger questions, whether it’s a camera or a pen, I will use it, even if I have no clue what I’m doing. I learn, I practice, and then I attempt to master my point of view.
In the last 20+ years I’ve accomplished a lot that I’m proud of. Some work wasn’t perfect, but it became the starting point to something bigger, something more significant. My artist journey doesn’t get easier just because I’ve accomplished a few things. In fact, it becomes harder because the more I learn the more I need to challenge myself. However, those basic skills I used early on are the same skills I use today. I have to do my own research, believe in myself, and find the right opportunities to share my work.
It took me years to learn who I was as a writer. I learned that I am playful and fearless, so the beginning stages of my work have no boundaries. I am not afraid of trying new things and breaking the rules. But the editor in me needed to get serious. And I fought her tooth and nail. I saw editing as that parental figure that stops the fun from happening. It’s a skill that I knew I needed to master and that’s still a work in progress for me.
I can’t say I know where I’m going as an artist. I’m not sure an artist’s work is ever done. I do know I like to remain curious. I’ve gotten comfortable with uncertainty, which makes sense since the personal journey was filled with so much uncertainty. I sort of got used to it. So, after a long journey of trying to find myself, I finally did. Through my work and the many other artists who inspired me with their work. I finally found a space that works for me. A place I can call home.
So, as I continue on my journey, I’ll end here with one of my own favorite quotes: “Success to me is feeling completely comfortable in my own skin. So that means every day I have to make decisions not based on what is popular but what feels right to me. And making sure that I remove any safety nets because embracing uncertainty is what keeps me most authentic.”
More info can be found at http://www.lindanievespowell.com