Charlotte Street Foundation identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur. We cultivate the contemporary, the exceptional, and the unexpected in the practice of artists working in and engaging with the Kansas City Art Community
By Autumn Sauer
When I interviewed Madison Mae Parker it was clear that she was a writer and performer. She spoke with confidence and poise, navigating and articulating her answers effortlessly. But Madison Mae’s work takes poetry beyond the ordinary and expected: she takes it where it leads her. This fearless approach creates greater access points for audience members to connect. For Madison, it’s not even about poetry. It’s about what poetry allows us to experience and feel, how it brings us together. Poetry is the means by which an end is reached. And it’s for this reason that her work expands far beyond the boundaries of pen and page.
Details of new work and new ideas bubbled out of Madison as we continued to talk. It was impossible not to get excited. As a Charlotte Street Foundation studio resident, she’s had the opportunity to explore and share. Her fiery voice, infectious enthusiasm, and everything else that comes along with it will be on display at this year’s Open Studios event.
[Autumn]: I noticed it said on your website that you’re working on a new body of work. Is any of that going to be at Open Studios?
[Madison]: I’m working on a series about stretch marks, specifically focusing on eating disorders and stretch marks. I’m writing a lot about my own personal story with eating disorders and I’m hopefully going to be interviewing other people as well that have stories of eating disorders of various kinds. I’m going to take stretch marks and place them onto a fabric canvas and then whether through embroidery, or through this chemical called Fiber Etch, which will remove the soft, top layer of velvet, so the foundation of the fiber remains and becomes see-through, creating the stretch marks.
I’ve done sample pieces and I just ordered the large bolt of fabric so I can now do a six-foot piece. This idea will be in there and I’ll also be doing a performance involving stretch marks as well. And we’ll see if this works out but I bought a beige, skin-tone body suit to embroider my own stretch marks onto. So hopefully that works out and I’ll wear it for the performance section.
[Autumn]: So are you doing this entire project on your own, even the embroidery and fabric stuff?
[Madison]: I am. It’s a new project I’m working on. I started learning how to sew about a year ago now. I was struggling to learn on my own and through YouTube videos, so my partner ended up getting me into sewing classes for my birthday back in the fall. I’ve been taking sewing classes and also teaching myself along the way. I think for a long-term project I’d love to have thirty-some-odd stretch mark pieces and I’d love to have people help me in that process. Also with embroidery, it’s one of those things that a lot of people can do—not that it’s easy, but it something that allows for different hands to be involved in the process. I’m hoping that once the project starts taking off, I can invite more people into the show with me, but in the initial stages I’m just working on it by myself.
[Autumn]: I know Charlotte Street kind of defines you as a writer, but obviously you also do performance and visual pieces. How do you reconcile those things? Is visual art part of writing or is it kind of its own thing?
[Madison]: In all of my work the text comes first. The text informs the rest of the project and a lot of my text is very image driven too. I think about how I can bring the text to life in other formats, whether that’s through performance or through a visual project. I try to make more access points for people to relate to poetry because I think sometimes people are like, “I don’t really get poems.” But maybe if you don’t get poems, perhaps you can understand a poem through movement or through a visual project—just trying to find more access points into poetry for people to connect and create doorways for those conversations to happen.
[Autumn]: When you do a performance of your work, does it change from performance to performance or is that something that you like to keep constant?
[Madison]: I think it kind of depends on the context. Last night, I actually had a show at the UMKC Art Gallery, where I have an installation up that I did with an art partner of mine, her name is Rye Lanae Boothe. We made a dresser based off a text that I wrote and she directed the show it was based off of. We did it back in November 2017. So during this performance, all of the text I used previously existed from that theater show and I took about twelve minutes worth of text from the script and kind of had it in my back pocket. Then I improvised and let the text find me in the space. I interacted and coexisted with the installation. So if I was laying with one of the objects in the installation and a text came to me, I performed it. It was improvising in a natural way, like how someone would exist in their bedroom.
But tonight I’m doing a house show, which is a way more normal, DIY show, if that makes sense. So it really depends on the context I’m in and what the space is and what kind of environment I want to create. Tonight, before the show, we are doing a potluck so it’s like there’s not this audience-stage barrier. Instead, it’s just like we’re all eating dinner together and can hang out and have a conversation about art.
[Autumn]: Where are looking for inspiration? I know that you’ve said you’re looking to personal experiences but are you looking to other people or just more internally?
[Madison]: I think both. As far as other artists go, there is Ann Hamilton—I love her fiber work. She has this one piece, I think it’s from 2012, it’s called The Event of a Thread. It was in this warehouse and she invited people to play. It had these huge fabric swings and when people swung on them the fabric that was bolted into the ceiling ended up creating these movements. In an interview I saw with her about it, she was talking about how people had spent hours there and it had become this like weird playground kind of a thing. She said she hadn’t expected that to happen but was like “Wow, I love it.” I just think that’s really neat to invite play into art and to invite the audience to participate. I really appreciate her work.
And then there’s a musician—and I cannot do music, I love music but I’m not a musician—and it’s two sisters and they’re in a band together called CocoRosie. Their aesthetic is very like creepy, feminine, and ethereal and that’s kind of the aesthetic that I hope is conveyed in a lot of the work I create. Those are two artists in particular that I draw a lot of inspiration from, as of recent at least. I think a lot also comes from conversations with people in my community and my friends. I also coach and teach youth poetry over at Mattie Rhodes. I learn constantly from those students and the conversations I get to have with them.
[Autumn]: So going back to that idea of audience interaction, how do you want the audience to interact with your work? How do you want them to respond and what does that dynamic look like?
[Madison]: My background in performance first started through slam poetry. I still host and coach slam poetry, but I don’t really slam myself that much these days. When I’m hosting, we’ll say “Poetry is a conversation” and I still believe that even outside of slam. We tell people to snap or clap when they like something—to interact with it. I think that was my first access point with performance and it allowed me to find an entryway. I think for a long time I was like, “Oh, I like writing but I’m not a writer,” or “I like poetry but I’m not a poet.” It kind of gave me an access point to hold onto it a bit more for myself and feel like part of the community, even if I didn’t feel comfortable including myself in it yet—like because of imposter syndrome or whatever it is that every artist feels. I think that remains continuous.
In all of my work I try to remind people that they are not alone because that is how I found art. I felt like I was super alone and sty was a way for me to feel connected to people and feel less alone in my story. I think regardless of what kind of performance I’m doing or if someone’s reading a book of mine or whatever it might be, that they feel like their story is important and their story matters. Even if they’ve not experienced the direct story that I’m conveying through my work, we’ve all experienced sadness of some kind or happiness or joy or heartbreak or whatever it is—you can at least relate on an emotional level. Conversations and dialogue occur from that and create access points and doorways into art in general.
[Autumn]: What brought you to Kansas City?
[Madison]: I moved to Kansas City in December of 2015 so I just hit my three-year mark recently. I moved here for an art residency program called Transform Arts and it was for two years. I originally applied with the New York program—because they’re in New York, KC, and Paris. But the year I applied they weren’t sending artists there unless you had to be there for your art, which was like ballet or Broadway—which is not what I’m doing. So they were like “We’re not sending any artists to New York, so how about KC?” and I was like what the heck is in Missouri? But I wanted to get out of Texas because I’d lived there my whole life and it was a paid residency for two years, so I said okay. So I moved here and started the residency that January but I ended up quitting it three months early so I could start at Charlotte Street.
[Autumn]: What makes this residency different from that one, anything in particular?
[Madison]: So the other residency was paid, but it didn’t include a studio space. I mean you could use your money towards a space if you wanted to, but for me coming in as a writer I don’t necessarily need a studio space. As time went on I realized I kind of did need a studio space but I also didn’t really know how I’d use the space or if I could justify the payment for it. I think it’s been nice to have this residency because it’s also given me access to the performance room and I’ve been able to pick the brains of other visual artists. I think it’s really allowed me to push some of my explorations because there are so many other artists around me in this one space. It’s given me permission I guess, just permission to explore and permission to expand upon what I already wanted to do but was too timid to otherwise explore by myself.
[Autumn]: In what ways have you seen your work grow or change within the past few years?
[Madison]: It’s changed a lot actually within the last few years, which is really exciting to see. I did a couple of poetry tours and they were pretty fun but I kept feeling, “What’s next?” I was already itching for more. I think the initial step started with a one-woman show I did in November of 2017 and kind of just getting to see and think about other places where poetry can exist instead of just a page or just an open mic. How do we make poems exist in people’s bodies or in a tapestry or whatever it is? Also, letting people find their own poems. I think all of our stories are poems and how do we create those access points for people to experience and find validation in their own stories… one of my favorite quotes, I actually have it written on here, it’s from W.H. Auden: “For poetry makes nothing happen,” and it continues on, but one of the last lines is “It survives… a way of happening, a mouth.” And I think that summarizes how I want poetry to exist. Poetry itself isn’t the thing; it is the avenue to get to where we need to be. I think that’s a big motivating factor in a lot of the work that I do.
Madison Mae continues to push boundaries and explore beyond the ordinary. Immerse yourself in her work on April 20 at Open Studios. Come to experience her heart and soul and leave learning something new about yourself.