Things are what you make of them

Interdisciplinary artist Sebastienne Mundheim takes on the work of Kea Tawana in workshops and upcoming performance at ArtYard.

Perhaps what’s so appealing about Marie Kondo’s method of organization—the lifestyle trend du jour which, in part, prompts people to gather all their items and remove anything that doesn’t spark joy—is that it burdens the object, and not the person, with the creation of meaning. Move me, old plastic vase, or you’re toast. My heart no longer flutters at the sight of you, Instant Pot, and so you are banished from my life.

It’s not the Instant Pot’s fault that it doesn’t spark joy. Of course Kondo knows this; what her method does is shortcut the complex ways in which we apply meaning to objects. How we animate the inanimate. We’re not only organizing physical objects when we apply Kondo’s method; we’re organizing the attachments our brain has made to these items, and intuiting which attachments endure and which have been severed. It just so happens it’s a lot easier to say, “Fuck this duvet cover,” than to psychoanalyze ourselves.

In short, things are what we make of them. I’m aware of this walking through the workshop space at ArtYard in Frenchtown in early September with Sebastienne Mundheim, founder of Philly’s White Box Theatre. Scattered around us are probably hundreds of Mundheim’s creations and various materials to make more—paper birds, boats made of plastic raspberry containers, mounds of paper in various forms, a pile of some reddish, flowing material that looks like intestines but also kind of delicious? 

Some were for a series of performance art workshops Mundheim was about to conduct at ArtYard, some were from the various shows she’d created over the prior two decades. She’s kept almost everything.

And it’s kind of a burden. Not because it’s clutter, but because it all means so much. Finding a place for it isn’t the problem, it’s caring for all of it. And the weight of that had Mundheim thinking she might call it quits on making more things.

“When you make physical things, you’re responsible for them. Like those flowers, all 70 of them have roots wrapped in tape. That’s a lot of wrapping, a lot of time. So I save everything, but then where do you put it?,” Mundheim says. “These crumpled up pieces of paper, I pay to store this crumpled paper, because it means something to me, even though it’s just crumpled paper.  So the idea of making more things that need to be stored, that I need to care about, it’s a lot of responsibility, and I was kind of done.”

That’s a different way to look at objects, or at least a perspective unique to those who create the objects in question: Meaning is immutable, and you are the steward of it. And if one continues to create objects with meaning, it sure would be an ever-heavying burden to carry. To illustrate the point, we walk over to Claire. Claire is a two-foot-tall puppet of a girl Mundheim created for a previous performance.

“Claire has a lot of other people at my house who are her friends,” says Mundheim. “How many Claires can you live with? But I’m not gonna ever throw away Claire.”

It’s easier for our brains to attach meaning to personified objects like Claire—go ahead, put googly eyes on a toaster and take it on a road trip and tell me you didn’t talk to it. But it’s also easier to attach meaning to all things when you see how Mundheim and those in her workshop create and transform them.

In fact, witnessing how much thought and energy goes into creating objects—and the fun, intimate, creative ways they’re brought to life in performance—the thought occurs that maybe for those who partake in Kondo’s system, the problem is not that they have too much stuff they don’t enjoy; it’s that they’re not thinking about how to make those things joyful in the first place.

Mundheim’s September ArtYard workshops centered on the work and life of another maker—Kea Tawana, who built an 86-foot-long, three-story ark out of salvaged materials in Newark’s Central Ward in the ’80s. The city ultimately made her tear it down, and only recently is her work being revisited—in a prior exhibition at Gallery Aferro, Mundheim’s work at ArtYard and in a PBS documentary, Kea’s Ark, which features archival clips of the ark’s construction and removal, and interviews with artists, historians and friends. 

ArtYard founder Jill Kearney was at that exhibition at Gallery Aferro in 2015 and it sparked in her a desire to expand on the work of Tawana, and so reached out to Mundheim, who’d created performance art for two decades on various subjects from James Joyce and Henri Rousseau to the epic of Gilgamesh.

But Tawana was an interesting, indefinable subject for Mundheim to take on. Depending on whom you ask, Tawana was an enigma, an outsider, an iconoclast, a failure and/or myriad other descriptors.

Tawana began slowly building the ark on Camden Street in 1982 using materials found from abandoned and demolished buildings in Newark. It was massive and well-constructed given the materials: the hull was made of timbers from old homes; the ballast of paving stones; the plumbing system of old toilets, sinks and pipes; all bound together by iron from fire escapes and fencing.

Naturally, the ark gained attention—some positive, some negative—and ultimately caught the eye of the city, which forced her to remove it as they wanted to sell the lot. So she moved it 25 feet to a church parking lot, but the city still wanted it down. Despite moving it, gaining national media attention and support from artists and community members, and a growing sense of its belonging in the space, the city ultimately tore it down in 1988 to make way for housing developments.

At the time, Newark was a city still dealing with disinvestment, crumbling infrastructure and systemic racial issues in the wake of the 1967 Rebellion. That episode, sparked when residents took issue with the treatment of a black cab driver, resulted in 26 people being killed, many of them black residents, and tens of millions of dollars in property damage, reducing the city to rubble.

And so for Tawana, who had been burned out of apartments in the area, to retrofit a truck into a home that she parked in Newark, and to build an ark out of the detritus left behind by the Rebellion and the ensuing neglect, was a radical act of creation in a time and place then synonymous—by those on the outside, at least—with decay.

In many ways, Tawana was the right (and maybe only) person to build the ark in Newark. She reflected the misunderstood, not easily definable city in flux itself. She defied traditional gender stereotypes, with media at the time often mistaking her for a man. Her origins were questioned, too; she said she was born in Japan (and planned to sail the ark back there), yet her 2016 obituary said she was born on an Indian reservation.

Kea with Ark, photo by Ted Degener. Courtesy of PCK Media, which produced Kea’s Ark, written, directed, and produced by Susan Wallner, and which appeared on NJ PBS in February 2021. The film revisits the story of Tawana, who built a three-story ark in the Central Ward of Newark in the ’80s.

No matter, really. But it speaks to a sense of unknowing about Tawana. In a Southern Quarterly piece about the ark, Holly Metz wrote: “Sometimes Kea told others she was black. Once, when challenged, she demurred that her features could not be described as typical of African Americans: ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but my soul is black!’”

Wrote Metz: “As a journalist struggling to ‘get the facts,’ I was frustrated at every turn, until I gave in. Beyond the physical reality of the Ark and neighbors’ confirmation that Kea Tawana had indeed built it alone, the story of Kea’s Ark and its maker was fluid, a composite.”

So for Mundheim, wrangling the multitudes of Tawana’s identity, the city in which she created and the art itself was not straight-forward; to do so, she sought avenues of connection between her and the artist.

“When I do a deep inquiry, I get in close with this imaginary friend, and ask, what can I learn? What do I want to discover most, in some ways, in myself? … So I may ask myself, how did this person persevere in the way that she did? What were her survival techniques? And some of what I think worked for her was a kind of commitment to her solitude. I mean, she was very much out there in the world, but she was a loner. She may have written Valentines to herself, I’m not sure.  

“I didn’t know Kea, but my sense of Kea is that she had a huge amount of compassion and identified with many people who were not seen. Poor people, black people, Native American people, trans people. And she stood in solidarity. She had an incredibly, incredibly difficult life. And she persevered.”

In the workshop at ArtYard, Mundheim asked participants—mostly local community members, some with performance art backgrounds—to do their own inquiries into Tawana with materials Mundheim gathered. They then came together and Mundheim prompted them to share items that made Tawana’s story unique and might be able to be integrated into a performance: ideas like perseverance and failure; lines from Tawana’s notebook; physical details about the ark; context from the city and the time; the perception of Tawana’s work at the time.

They also synthesized those ideas into objects. Participants created miniature handheld arks of their own out of various materials—paper, plastic, cardboard, etc. They then used the arks in performance exercises, holding the lightweight arcs on the tips of their hands, pretending to blow wind into their sails, rising and falling with the imaginary tide. 

It came together in a short scene in which some members cloaked themselves in that reddish cloth, so massive that multiple people could fit under it, and so conforming that it could create a multi-layered effect. Others shrouded themselves in flexible, brownish paper. Mundheim queued up cello music and dimmed the lights, and the workshop members began to move, with no direction on what they were, only a sense maybe. Amid a slow-moving sea of red, crashing on rocks swaying in the ocean, the shabby arks sailed through the tumult.

To be clear, it was just my perception that the scene depicted arks at sea. To others, it could’ve looked like a city in ruin, on fire, an ark above the storm. Others, other viewings. And the members themselves, unable to have the vantage of the full scene, surely had a different relationship with the objects in play. 

What was most fluid in the scene was not any of the materials, but our perceptions of what they mean. I see a rock, the person inside feels they are a whale or a building or freedom or a generation or maybe just a person under some cool paper.  

The point is, the meaning in those inanimate objects changes from person to person, minute to minute. And for all who that are there to witness it, those meanings stick. In this instance, informed by all we know about Tawana’s story, the experience of the workshop itself and the knowledge that hands in this room built these objects, the paper clumps and cardboard boats and red fabric just mean more. 

What a loss it would be to throw them away.

Teaching others how to create, perform and inject meaning into objects is an art in itself; one that Mundheim has spent years cultivating. 

That work began early, when it wasn’t really work. Mundheim says her parents were natural storytellers who passed onto her, by osmosis, an ability to share.

“I have no dance training, no theater training,” she says. “But I grew up with a father who is a law professor and an effective lecturer. You listen to him because he’s very spare, and most of the lectures have questions with a long pause, and the questions are worth pondering. … And then my mother is a very colorful storyteller who also commands an audience. I was a storyteller in training through my family and then a mover through martial arts.”

Years ago, Mundheim noticed a martial arts instructor through an open glass window one day and was stunned by the beauty of it. So she began practicing martial arts—she’s a black belt now. It shows. One notices how effortless it seems to be for Mundheim to move with a flimsy object steadied on the back of her hand. That fluidity can’t necessarily be taught in a three-day workshop, but Mundheim has developed ways to get the most out of people who may not be experienced in this type of performance.

For instance, often in performance art, performers are asked to carry, balance or otherwise inhabit objects; retaining the natural objects is important so the audience’s immersion stays true, but it also helps the performers identify with the object more closely. Learning how to teach this skill began when Mundheim worked with children.

“I actually developed this technique of balancing sticks on the wrists when I was working with kids who were really rambunctious. We were going to build with these PVC [pipes] but they wouldn’t stop doing sword play. So I thought, what’s a different game that will make for focus? I said, let’s see if you can balance these on your wrists. And it’s fun to do, because it’s a challenge. It created a beautiful focus,” Mundheim says. “I developed more ideas around that—isolate, change levels, change hands, change speed. This is actually very helpful for learning to perform with an object because you’re giving all your focus to this thing staying alive and not falling onto the ground. That’s what you need to do when you’re performing with objects, too. It’s gotta be all about the thing and not about you. You are in service of the object, following it, breathing into it, noticing its properties. As you attend to the object, you model attention to it.” 

Working with groups in this manner is “generative” for Mundheim—she likes seeing the moments it clicks for performers; when they understand what they’re asked to do, see how it fits into a larger piece and start to imbue the objects with their own expressions. But it also brings diverse ideas into a workspace, and creates a sense of unity among the participants.

“Leading workshops helps me to get the ideas going. We read together, we build together, we move together,” Mundheim says. “We all become invested in the story together, too.”

Workshop participants at ArtYard build wearable arks during a session with Sebastienne Mundheim in October 2022.

Investing in the story—so much so that you can do it justice and create art from it—requires an artist like Mundheim to connect with the person she’s going to be basing her work on. So for Mundheim, who was considering quitting making things, it’s a bit of a 180 to go from not making things ever again to diving into a figure like Tawana, steeped as she was in ambiguity, contradictions and a complicated legacy. 

But in inquiring about Tawana, Mundheim found more similarities than differences—if Tawana was the right person to build the ark, maybe Mundheim is the right person to build a performance about her. They’re both makers. They both make things that mean something to them. And everything they make, whether it’s torn down by the city or living safely with the creator herself, will one day turn to dust.

“Ultimately, I actually really identify with Kea because what do I do? I work incredibly hard. I run up and down ladders. I build all this stuff. And then it all goes away. It’s absurd to work so hard for something that is ephemeral, but that’s what we all do on this planet.”

So if it’s absurd to do it, and the burden is heavy, then why did Mundheim recalibrate and take on the Tawana challenge?

“Because, we started to play and it’s so fricking fun. It’s sort of like, there’s all the stuff. But then we start dancing around the room with these things and it’s so exciting.”

In other words, they sparked joy.

Mundheim will return to ArtYard in March to put together a performance inspired by Tawana’s work, which’ll premiere in May in ArtYard’s new theater.