Enjoy the process: Lessons from an artist

By Alisha Siebers, Executive Director, Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center

Anyone who has visited the Distant Whistle notices the wall of hand-crafted ceramic mugs created by Lisa Beams. Folded into each of those unique mugs is the story of an artist who loves to experiment and learn.

When she was a girl, Lisa pored over the Sears catalog, dreaming not about toys, but about the art kits and the possibility of getting a whole set of markers with all the colors. When she was studying at Ohio Northern to be a pharmacist, Lisa wanted to balance her chemistry and math classes with something creative. She took a ceramics class and learned a lot, but, she says, “not enough.” She kept her tools, thinking, “Someday I’m going to do this again.”

Twenty-seven years later, her son, who was enrolled at KVCC, encouraged her to sign up for the first of several classes in ceramics. It turned out that ceramics has been a great fit for her experimental, scientific mind. The chemistry involved intrigues her, especially the way glazes combine to create colors. She can layer a specific off-white glaze with a brown one and the vessel will turn out blue after firing! She keeps a notebook of all of her creations so she can remember what she tried. The only problem with ceramics, she jokes, is that clay is heavy. When she’s lifting a tray of fragile, heavy pieces, she thinks, “Why didn’t I get into the paper arts?!”

Lisa got involved with the Distant Whistle through the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center. Back when the VCAC had a gallery space, Dane Bosel noticed her mugs and asked who made them. He told her he was starting a brewery and wanted mugs for a Mug Club. Lisa never wanted to be a production potter, where she would repeat the same design over and over, so working with Dane turned out to be a great match. All he requires is that the mugs hold 20 ounces. Other than that, Lisa can experiment with colors, shapes, and styles.

Lisa’s drive to learn new things has led her to be a “serial artist,” learning about all kinds of art forms through her life: stained glass, drawing, painting, cake decorating, photography, and spinning. She currently leads the South County Fiber Arts program with Julie Renzema and Jody Gerard. She brings the same attitude of experimentation and play to spinning and knitting. Their group especially welcomes new people who want to dive in and learn these traditional arts.

Lisa’s experimental approach to the arts has a good lesson for all of us. She points out that artists tend to be self-critical. They might think “Oh, that’s not what I wanted to make, therefore it’s bad.” Lisa explains, “Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.” When she was learning at KVCC, sometimes Lisa would cut a piece she created on the wheel, to the shock of newer students around her. She explains that the scientific side of her wanted to see how thick it was inside. That’s part of learning. The main point is “What did I learn from it?” The big takeaway from Lisa’s artistic experience is “If you want to try something, go for it. If it doesn’t work the first time, try a new way. Enjoy it. Enjoy the process.”

If you’d like to see more of Lisa Beams’ work, visit her Etsy shop at www.etsy.com/shop/sunsetlakestudios.

VHS teacher and professional musician

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Dan Ouellette counts himself lucky to have two rewarding positions: a Vicksburg High School English teacher and a founding member of local blues band, the Out of Favor Boys. It’s been an interesting mix, one that Ouellette enjoys.

Ouellette has always been a reader and a music lover, and he credits his family for those interests. His dad, a union electrician, and his mom, a homemaker, provided a supportive home rich in literacy and music. Ouellette learned to read at an early age. “I always loved reading, and I remember reading a lot as a boy—anything and everything.” He recalls his parents keeping his bedroom shelf full of books. He was also an excellent student. “I always did well in school, and I felt connected to my English teachers,” he says. Both influenced his path to becoming a teacher.

Ouellette says his family stressed the importance of school, and “it was always assumed I would go to university.” He was the first in his family to graduate from college. To make it possible, he and his parents all worked extra jobs and Ouellette secured some loans to pay for his education. “They supported me in every way they knew how.”

As for guitar skills, Ouellette is mostly self-taught. When he was a child, his older brother, Joe, was taking guitar lessons, so there was a guitar in the house. When Joe got a new one for Christmas in 1979, Ouellette had more access to the old one. Joe taught him a few chords and they both started playing from an old song book. Joe eventually gave up the guitar, but Ouellette says by age 7 he was hooked.

By 9 or 10, Ouellette looked at a chord diagram and “guessed that’s where I’m supposed to put my fingers.” He already could pluck some melodies and began adding some chords. When he was fourteen, Ouellette met one of his dad’s co-workers, who showed him chords and their relationships. “That opened up a door for me.”

About that time, Ouellette’s oldest brother gave him lots of cassette tapes, including Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who, and Ouellette began playing along. “I came to realize that if I played in a certain area of the guitar’s neck, most of the notes sounded okay, and I could kind of ‘solo.’ I know now I was discovering scales.”

After watching BB King on the Cosby Show, reading guitar magazines and listening to other artists, Oullette realized that he “loved the blues and I really began to feel like I was understanding the guitar.” Gradually, the quality of his instruments improved from beginning guitars—which are hard to play—to better quality guitars, thanks to gifts over the years from his parents.

During his studies at Western Michigan University, Ouellette connected to several students who shared his love of blues music. Their friendship and passion for the blues grew, and from these relationships, the current roster of The Out of Favor Boys developed.

Joel, a vocalist, guitarist, and bandmate for nearly twenty years, lived down the hall. Ouellette says Joel bought a cheap acoustic guitar; they started playing and soloing and accompanying. They started going to blues jam sessions at Wonderful’s in Kalamazoo, which Ouellette eventually helped host. He joined The Crossroads Blues Band and became a part of the Kalamazoo State Theater’s Thursday night blues concert series. Ouellette describes the blues community as supportive and encouraging to new artists and groups. “There is a tradition in the blues world of musicians going out after their show to see local bands. There’s another tradition of local bands asking touring musicians to sit in with them for a few songs.”

Around 2002-2003, Ouellette, Joel – who had recently moved back to town – and a local sax player connected with a keyboard player, a drummer, and a bass player. This ensemble became the first roster of the Out of Favor Boys. They quickly began recording, writing music, and securing gigs on weekends. They took over the Thursday Jam Session at Wonderful’s, eventually moving to the 411 Club. Continued practice, commitment and local exposure increased the band’s opportunities over the years.
Oullette says that Kalamazoo’s music scene has always been strong and was historically a “gas gig” for touring bands. Bands booked shows in Chicago and Detroit, and being situated halfway between the two, Kalamazoo was seen as an opportunity to play a smaller show that would help cover touring expenses.

“As far as blues, Kalamazoo has mostly benefited from its proximity to Chicago. Many of the people that we’ve been able to jam with have been Chicago artists. Of course, Chicago has been one of the most important centers for post-war electric blues. Blues bands don’t make much money from album sales or music licensing or publishing. They make their money from touring.”

Over the years, the band has shared the stage with many musicians, some famous. Tab Benoit, Three Dog Night, and Frankie Ballard are some of the headliners that the Out of Favor Boys have opened for and played with. Again, Ouellette’s hours of practice allow him to step onstage and jam with full-time guitarists in front of hundreds of fans. This seems impossible and intimidating for most people, but Ouellette explains, “I learned to play blues in jam sessions. It works the same whether it’s with a buddy in a dorm room or in the basement at Wonderful’s or on the stage at the Kalamazoo State Theater. The same musical basics and unspoken communications work in any setting on any scale.”

Ouellette is also a songwriter, and his work appears on several of the group’s albums. The band is again enjoying performing live, after a nearly two-year pause because of COVID.

Ouellette has taught at Vicksburg High School for 23 years, and while balancing classroom responsibilities with band commitments can be challenging at times, the band’s creative outlet has refreshed and benefitted him.

“I still feel very lucky that I’ve been able to pursue two of my passions for all of these years — teaching and playing music. I’ve been able to share and relate the two worlds and make valuable connections with many students throughout my career through music. I’m not ready to give either up any time soon.”

More information can be found at www.outoffavorboys.com and on Facebook and Instagram.
The band’s music is available on all streaming services. 

Picture walks: A party of blue jays

A blue jay in the snow. Photo by Jeanne Church.

By Jeanne Church

A group of blue jays can be referred to as a band, a cast, a scold, or a party. The most common usage is band, but I prefer to call it a party. A “party of blue jays” puts a much more positive spin on a bird that many people describe as loud, bossy and aggressive, while a “party” makes them sound like fun! I consider blue jays to be beautiful, intelligent birds who bring a welcome splash of color and excitement to an otherwise dreary winter day. Not everybody feels the same way.

Blue jays are, without a doubt, noisy birds, especially in the fall. To the casual observer, they seem to be screaming and squawking for no apparent reason. More likely than not, there is a predatory bird nearby, like a hawk or an owl. When the blue jays make all that racket, it is an alert call for the nearby birds that danger is at hand! Blue jays can accurately imitate the calls of both the red-tailed hawk and the red-shouldered hawk, and act as the local alarm system for their friends and family, as well as the many small rodents that are scurrying around in the underbrush! Blue jays have saved many a bird and many a rodent from becoming a gourmet snack for a hungry hawk.

Sometimes, though, blue jays will make hawk calls even when none are present. Their objective is to scare away any nearby birds so that they can have all the feeders to themselves! It’s quite a clever move on their part, but not one that is welcome among avid backyard birders! Most of the fleeing birds return quickly once they realize they’ve been duped and the offending blue jays are quietly eating.

Blue jays are members of the “big-brained” corvid family; a group that includes ravens and crows. These birds are considered to be some of the most intelligent and curious species of animals in the world. For example, blue jays in a lab figured out how to get food pellets that were out of reach by tearing off scraps of newspaper in their cages and using those scraps to sweep the pellets in an arc until they were within reach! They also learned to use other tools like paper clips, plastic bread ties, feathers, and straws to accomplish the same task!

These birds are not only extremely intelligent creatures, they also deserve credit for planting thousands upon thousands of trees! Nuts are a blue jay’s favorite food, especially acorns, and they will cache thousands of them for later use. One blue jay alone can store as many as 5,000 nuts per year! Many of those nuts will get eaten over the winter, but a significant portion will germinate and eventually become mature trees. Blue jays like to hide their seeds in open areas that have recently been disturbed by activities such as plowing or mowing. As a result, eleven species of oak trees have become dependent on blue jays to disperse their seeds!

While I am singing the praises of blue jays, let me also say they are very loyal and attentive mates and parents. Unlike many bird species, the male blue jay doesn’t just mate and run. He sticks around to help build the nest and, once the eggs are laid, he brings food to the female while the eggs are incubating. After the eggs hatch, both birds are actively involved in taking care of their nestlings. The male constantly provides food while the mother feeds it to the babies.

Blue jays are also extremely protective of their nesting sites, and will let out ear-splitting screams if an intruder approaches. When that warning isn’t sufficient, they will dive-bomb the offending individual, whether it’s a human or an animal. As a result, they are often labeled as obnoxious or aggressive.

It might be an understatement to say that blue jays are generally not well-liked. They are so unpopular, in fact, that not one single state in our country has chosen a blue jay for its state bird! Conversely, the northern cardinal is the state bird in seven states! Hmmm.

Perhaps blue jays are unpopular because we tend to assign human characteristics to them, like “aggressive” and “bossy” when all they’re really trying to do is survive and protect their families, just like the rest of us.

It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess, whether you see a group of blue jays as a “party” or a “scold”. I prefer a party!