Interview: Barbara Shema

Barbara Shema writes on a variety of topics from travel related articles and jazz, to child development issues, to non-profit business profiles. She is a practicing visual artist and enjoys the play between materials, process and people. Her exploration of mixed media, combining various art processes and applications, is a method of discovery about art and about herself. Enjoy this interview.

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First the essentials. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I’m originally from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, but lived in Providence Rhode Island for six years before moving to Albany New York in 2007. I’m married to a fantastic man who whole-heartedly supports my writing and art. My children and grandchildren live on opposite ends of the country.

I have an undergraduate degree in Art Education and a graduate degree in Educational Leadership. I did teach art in elementary and middle school for several years after graduating from college.

More recently I’ve worked in outreach and program coordination at several universities. I’m now concentrating on making art and developing my web-writing skills.

I came to writing through poetry when I began participating in poetry writing workshops about 15 years ago when living in Pittsburgh. Although I’ve not been writing poetry recently, I do write in a journal for 30-45 minutes almost every day. It’s the first thing I do in the morning while my mind is still empty and open.

What is the Capitol Forum on America’s Future and how were you involved in that?

The Capitol Forum is a program out of the Choices Education Program at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University that promotes the knowledge of and thoughtful dialogue about the United States role in the world by pondering the options the in U.S. foreign policy. Through student-centered, interactive curriculum materials on immigration, the environment, world trade, and terrorism, students learn about choices the U.S. has in each of these areas. At the end of the school year, each participating state has a statewide forum for students to address these issues, with the goal to develop well-informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens.

In my position as Program Coordinator, I helped organizations establish and sustain a successful statewide Capitol Forum program in their state.

It seems that literacy is a passionate subject for you. How do you feel this affects your writing?

Writing improves with practice…the more one writes, the more easily one writes, like learning a language, or playing a musical instrument, or training to be an athlete. From my days working with the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project at the University of Pittsburgh, I adopted the National Writing Project philosophy that we learn to write by writing.

My definition of literacy is quite broad in that I see literacy as the ability to effectively communicate in the world. I had a marvelous experience of working with English language learners at an adult literacy center in Providence RI.

For more than a year, I facilitated art workshops with people who had recently emigrated to the U.S. Most in the group were either Hmong who came from refugee camps in Thailand, or Somalis who had been in refugee camps in Kenya. There were several other nationalities in the group and 4 or 5 different languages spoken. The art workshops were a way to bridge the language barrier between these disparate groups to help create a sense of community among people with very different languages and backgrounds.

I think it’s amazing that you’re not only a great writer, but talented artist as well. Tell us about the mixed media projects you’ve done?

One series of mixed media collage paintings, where done with photocopies of family photographs incorporated into the painting, and evolved after doing considerable genealogical research about my mother’s parents who emigrated to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in the early 1900s.

Through the research, I came to better understand the dynamics that must have surrounded their migration and affected who they were. Through the process of creating the mixed media collage paintings, I was able to visually communicate what I felt and learned.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

Boy, that’s a tough one. The pursuit of writing professionally is new for me. What I want to create is interesting work that is flexible and transportable – something I can do anytime/anywhere.

I’ve learned so much about writing for the web by writing for Suite101.com – it is a genre that has its own skill-set to master. I’m not sure what the “next” is for me, other than to continue to learn and improve my web-writing skills – to learn as much as I can and be competent in that arena.

I would, though, like to get back to writing poetry. There was, and still is, a very strong and supportive poetry community in Pittsburgh that is a beautiful blend of academia and community poetry – I miss that very much.

For me, writing poetry is about getting to the essence of something using carefully selected words in a concise way. I believe writing poetry compliments and enhances other writing genre, and having written poetry has contributed to my skill development for online writing.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

That’s difficult to answer, but two books I’ve read in the last year in which I became completely engrossed were: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, a Norwegian writer and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, a contemporary of Virginia Woolf.

Favorite authors?

Don’t have one in particular.

Book you’re currently reading?

There are three books I’ve begun recently – all very different. I’ll frequently start several and graze from one to the other depending on my mood, unless one book really grabs me from the get-go. It’s probably not the best way to read books.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
A Far Country by Daniel Mason
The Comfort Women by C. Sarah Soh

Where can we learn more about you?

Here is a link to my articles on Suite101: http://www.suite101.com/writer_articles.cfm/bshema
and my art is posted on http://BarbaraShemaArt.blogspot.com/
and photography on http://BarbaraShemaPhotography.blogspot.com/

Anything else you’d like to add?

Perhaps just that I love learning new things and using what I’ve learned in overlapping and new ways.

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