Gap Year Travels: Chiang Mai, a Creative City

[This is the final in a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

The air is crisp and fresh in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This isn’t extraordinary in and of itself, but it is a delight to step off of the bus (a twelve-hour over night bus, that is!) into the misty mountain-dwarfed town after three weeks in hot and muggy Central Thailand. Oh, and Chiang Mai has great used book shops!

Our time in Chiang Mai was fun-filled with exciting adventures including–but not limited to–two hour-long Thai massages at six dollars each (read: near beatings that leave you feeling exhausted but refreshed), three hours spent mountain biking down (as slowly as our tired brake-clenching fingers would allow) Doi Suthep Mountain, bamboo reed river rafting and riding a banana-happy elephant through a beautiful natural area surrounded by mountains.

We made it to the bottom alive..?!?

You could say these were “creative” experiences in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, but what I found particularly blog post-worthy was the city’s campaign to join the UNESCO Creative City network. Drawing on the importance of what John Howkins termed the Creative Economy and Richard Florida’s concept of the Creative Class, the distinction Creative City refers to a city which has worked to develop post-industrial knowledge sectors and actively network, nurture and promote its robust creative industries. Such industries include IT, media, software, urban and social development, tourism, art, crafts, design and healthcare. Read a thoughtful post about the Creative City concept at Community Arts Network.

The Chiang Mai Creative City initiative’s mission is to “put in place the foundations, people, connections, marketing and infrastructure to develop and promote Chiang Mai as an internationally known city of creativity and innovation.” Not too shabby, Chiang Mai, and I’d say something is working! There is a distinctly modern, eclectic feel to this ancient, culturally rich walled city. Later this month, in fact, TEDxDoiSuthep (Chiang Mai region) is hosting a TEDx event entitled Creativity and Collaboration.

See more pictures of our pictures of Thailand here.

Gap Year Travels: Art & Community Development in Troubled City of Belfast

[This is the fourth of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

“Why would you want to go to Belfast?” my family members in Northern Ireland asked, adding, “watch where you go, I would stay close to the University area.”

I had visited my family in Northern Ireland twice before but never spent any time in the city to which they’ve traveled for errands, business and doctor visits throughout their lives — a city painfully pockmarked by the period of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. “Well, there HAS been a lot of redevelopment and cleanup the last few years,” my Aunt conceded.

The first thing I noticed about Belfast–home of C.S. Lewis, Van Morrison and the band Snow Patrol–was the architecture. The downtown area is a delightful mixture of Edwardian classics (see the regal City Hall) and eclectic, sometimes even funky, contemporary additions. Oh, and the public art scattered throughout the Cathedral Quarter, Queens University, the Titanic Quarter and divided residential areas is oh so generously cataloged in the City Council’s excellent Public Art Directory! Yes, the ill-fated RMS Titanic was built in the impressive Belfast dock yards, now presided over by the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes.

I was even more struck by the number of arts and cultural organizations we saw — virtually one on every corner! In particular, we saw a number of community arts organizations, those dynamic and creative organizations which engage members of the community in arts participation and projects that promote healing and positive engagement. For instance, the Re-imaging Communities Project, which endeavors to replace divisive sectarian murals infamous to Belfast with positive images of heritage and community interaction, is a compelling example of a community arts project tailored to engender positive change in a community plagued by a specific problem.

The city has undergone extensive urban regeneration and redevelopment since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought peace to the troubled city. It seems that the community and governing bodies have embraced arts and culture as a critical element of community development and revitalization. The result is a thriving city with relative peace and a vital, extensive cultural scene enriching the lives of locals and driving one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. This is in part I’m sure due to the partnerships among governmental and cultural organizations, as seen in the development of an Integrated Cultural Strategy in partnership between the City, the City Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

In fact, we just missed the Belfast Film Festival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and completion of the largest piece of public art commissioned in Northern Ireland, a sculpture entitled RISE. (See below an extensive list of arts organizations and venues we stumbled across while visiting.) Local cultural institutions include the award-winning Crescent Arts Center, oh yeah Music Center and Grand Opera House.

For an extensive look at development of the arts scene and community arts in Belfast beginning in the 1970’s, check out the Northern Visions (a nonprofit access channel) documentary, In Our Time: Creating Arts Within Reach:

Also, see more pictures of our travels through Belfast and Northern Ireland here.

Below is a list of all the arts and cultural organizations and venues we stumbled upon in Belfast:

New Belfast Community Arts Initiative

Community Arts Forum

Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Black Box Belfast

Oh Yeah Belfast

Crescent Arts Center

Queens Film Theatre

Publishing NI

Catalyst Arts

Belfast Film Festival

AU Magazine

The Metropolitan Arts Center (Opening 2012)

Belfast Waterfront

Belfast Print Workshop

Grand Opera House


Gap Year Travels: St. Patrick’s Festival in the Land of Saints & Scholars

[This is the third of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

Oscar Wilde Memorial in Merrion Square

Ireland: the land of saints and scholars! Admittedly, the only saint we interacted with was the namesake of that famous Irish celebration which we, too, celebrated: St. Patrick, the sheep herding missionary of St. Patrick’s Day fame all over the world. However, we did meet a number of Ireland’s literary scholars at cultural events and readings during the festivities: W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney and many other greats. I mean that figuratively, of course — except in the case of Seamus Heaney!

The St. Patrick’s Festival, a five-day celebration in Dublin of Ireland’s rich contemporary and traditional culture, was fabulous. Yes, we saw a number of leprechaun hats, shamrocks and beads, but we also found the festival–including music, dance, film and comedy acts–offered much depth. In celebration of Dublin’s recent appointment as one of the world’s four UNESCO Cities of Literature, the 2011 festival was literary-themed, including interesting events such as literary treasure hunts and Dublin Swell (more on this below).

Not surprisingly, the festival parade was entertaining. Fancifully-costumed dancers followed whimsically contrived mechanical floats through the streets of Dublin in the parade, designed to illustrate  a short story commissioned for 2011 festival by Irish writer Roddy Doyle (read more here). But the Friday evening literary bash, Dublin Swell, at the new Dublin Convention Center overlooking the impressive Samuel Becket Bridge, took the ticket.

New Dublin Convention Center overlooking the River Liffey & Samuel Beckett Bridge

The articulate introduction to Dublin Swell, conducted by Mary McAleese, President of Ireland (and practically a kinswoman, having lived much of her life in Rostrevor, a stones throw from my Aunt and Uncle!), was followed by an electrifying performance by musician Damien Dempsey of The Auld Triangle (hear a similar recording here). For the next two hours, we were treated to a litany of funny, profound, heartbreaking and witty performances of famous Irish literary passages by the likes of Neil Jordan, Roddy Doyle, Paul Durcan, Claire Kilroy, Dermot Bolger, Joseph O’Connor and Sebastian Barry. They colorfully performed readings of Beckett, Wilde, Joyce, Swift, Yeats, Kavanagh and many passages of their own work. (Read The Irish Times coverage of the Dublin Swell event here.)

The succession of readings was penetrated by a brilliant performance of Lille by Irish musician Lisa Hannigan (see a video of another performance here), several dramatic performances by members of the revered Abbey Theatre and three of W.B. Yeats’ poems performed to music by the colorful Mike Scott. Midway through the evening, Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney made his way to the microphone to read several short poems, sure-voiced though hesitant-bodied, and with a generous twinkle in his eye (hear a reading of his poem The Road to Derry here). What an electric night it was!

Among others, I was taken by Joseph O’Connor’s reading from his most recent book, Ghost Light, about Irish playwright John Synge and his muse, actress Maire O’Neill. I picked it up at a bookshop and hungrily read it during the first few weeks of April. Coincidentally, I was reading Ghost Light with all of Dublin (even though I had traveled to Thailand) as the book was chosen for Dublin’s One City, One Book April 2011 festival!

See pictures from our travels through Dublin for St. Patrick’s Festival 2011 as well as around the island here. Also, check out an excellent NY Times article on Dublin’s theatrical and literary scene.

Gap Year Travels: Modern Jazz in Prague, Mozart in Vienna

[This is the second of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

I’m delighted to find similar threads emerge during our time visiting the sites here in Central and Western Europe. In Prague, Czech Republic and Vienna, Austria, we followed the thread of enchanting live music performances and performing arts events in general.

In a stone vault space with adjoining bar turned cozy and wired jazz club AghaRTA Jazz Club in Prague, we discovered the hallucinogenic power of jazz music. We lost track of time sipping Czech Pilzner beer at our candlelit café table while the modern jazz quartet tweaked at their instruments on their way to oblivion. We were transfixed by the Vibraphone (jazz Xylophone) player, who performed unspeakable musical maneuvers with four mallets in two hands. [Listen to a selection of the musician’s work here.]

Also in Prague, we saw an experimental ballet performance of Casanova by a national performing arts group called Laterna Magika (self-proclaimed first multimedia theatre) in conjunction with the Czech Republic National Theatre. The performance encompassed music and film features as well as fascinating stage design including a large mirror that was lowered and raised and angled at different points in the performance and a large sheet hung in a taught semicircle which served as a projection for the sometimes campy, other times fantastical film montage segments. Of course most interesting (and surprisingly unforeseen) was the slightly more graphic ballet interpretation of love scenes between Casanova and his various conquests, particularly the scene involving multiple parties. It was a performance of Casanova, after all.

On a side note, my enthusiastic attempt at cross-cultural literary exchange floundered: Of the five Czechs I asked, none had read any books by the Czech writer Mila Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All merely nodded and smiled politely in acknowledgement of his name. It was good reading anyway!

We were equally charmed and astonished upon seeing a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in the dramatic St. Charles Cathedral in Vienna. [See a clip of the performance here.] The evening was made even more dramatic in that we could see our breath escaping in cool tendrils from our mouths throughout the performance. Such spaces are beyond the reach of any worldly heating apparatus, we mused. However, we were summoned from our preoccupied, shivering bodies to a place of beauty in the lofty cathedral space by the holy sounds of the instrumentalists and vocalists, who were presided over by the most stunning altarpiece I’ve ever seen: alabaster figures dancing in an asymmetrical arc, leading them up and around the gleaming gold sunburst hanging high above them.

Also fun would have been to see the performance of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Vienna English Theatre, though we did not get around to it. We’ll save that for future viewing upon our return to the States!

See more pictures on my Facebook album.

Also seen:

Strahov Monastery Brewery and Library, Prague — Beautiful library just beyond the “Cabinet of Curiosities” (read: many stuffed dead animals and insects) and an equally beautiful cheese tray at the Brewery consisting of cheeses from the Moravian and Bohemian regions of Czech Republic.

Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, Prague

John Lennon Wall, Prague — a “source of irritation” for the Communist regime in the 80’s

Old Town Prague Architecture Lit at Night — Amen.

Jewish Museum, Pinkas Synagogue, Prague — Exhibition of drawings by Jewish children undertaken through an underground art school organized by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The art education was conducted alongside additional cultural and academic training arranged by the Jewish self-government in Terezín, the ghetto and transit camp where Jewish children and adults were housed before shipment to concentration camps beyond Czech Republic.

Haus der Musik, Vienna (House of Music) — “a discovery trip into the world of music.” What can I say? It was a charming place. One fun feature: act as virtual conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Kunsthaus Wien, Vienna (Art House Vienna) — “The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engines — not human beings.” This is the declaration on the “About the Uneven Floors” plaque just as you enter this museum. The exhibition dedicated to the Museum’s founder, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Austrian painter, environmentalist, architect and all around groovy eccentric, is excellent.

Technology Museum, Vienna — We spent the good part of an afternoon wandering through the interactive Energy exhibition at this extensive Museum. Also fun: the special exhibition, The Power of Music.

Butterfly House Vienna — Click here for a 3D virtual tour!


Prague Castle Hill and Royal Gardens

Charles Bridge

Old Town Square and the Astrological Clock Tower

St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Catacombs

Schonbrun Palace and Hoffsburg Palace

Next up:

Budapest, Slovenia and Rhine Valley of Germany!

Gap Year Travels: Urban Art in Amsterdam & Berlin

[This is the first of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

Gorilla art alongside monolith cultural institutions. Thriving public transit systems. Cobblestones, curry worst and frequent breaks for hot tea. To say the least, I have thoroughly enjoyed wandering through Amsterdam and Berlin during my first days in Europe!

Most fascinating is the rich tradition of urban art that has sprung out of alternative and underground culture in Amsterdam and Berlin. I was delighted to discover urban art–graffiti art, guerrilla art, street art, etc–murals that stretch over the entirety of a five-story building facade, whimsical sayings or installations erected in surprising corners–is rife throughout these cities.

[See more pictures on my Facebook page.]

I couldn’t help but think of the artists who have invested blood, sweat and tears to share so many extraordinary pieces of street art (or is it “public art?”). Of course much of this activity is considered illegal in both Europe and the U.S. [See MSNBC’s coverage of Raleigh guerrilla artist Joseph Carnivalle, who was arrested for the creation of Barrel Monster.] Though urban art in Amsterdam and Berlin is often subversive and political, it is clear that this art is regarded by residents–and perhaps in part by the government–as a significant part of the cities’ contemporary cultural scene.

In Amsterdam, we visited the art squats, abandoned buildings overtaken by artists who inhabit often decrepit abandoned urban spaces (usually without proper heat or plumbing) and build thriving communities of creativity. A local proudly shared that Amsterdam is one of the few cities in Europe in which authorities permit art squatters to remain in a prominent, central downtown district.

In Berlin, we saw a great art squat that is credited with leading the revitalization of the Mitte neighborhood, which was split by the Berlin Wall and fell into disrepair during Soviet rule. Of course, despite such positive consequences, tensions between the government and art squatters arise periodically if not regularly.

Also in Berlin, we discovered the 50 Faces Project, a public mural project which is credited with revitalizing a particularly dangerous and gang-ridden block in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. The project was organized by a group of artists who call themselves Graffiti Connection. The artists teamed up and, on every imaginable surface of a building on this block, painted 50 portraits of Berliners. The striking portraits poingantly and proudly conjure a sense of compassion, tolerance, shared experience and understanding. Those of you who know me know I eat this kind of stuff up.

And of course, we strolled down the 1-km long stretch of the former Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, proclaimed the “International Memorial for Freedom.” Fittingly, the organizers invited artists from Berlin and all over the world (including an artist from Colorado of all places) to explore and examine this prominent part of European and world history. See images of some of my favorite murals below. Thanks for joining me on the first leg of my travels!

Also seen:

The Hub Amsterdam — Great contemporary space of entrepreneurship and collaboration in a gorgeous building just off Canal Ring!

Bicyclers galore in Amsterdam — I’m told there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. Chic bikers in trendy boots, scarves, skirts and tights peddle in every direction, in some cases toward the multi-level bicycle parking garage!

Amsterdam Public Library — Six floors of materials and shared space, bustling with people of all ages, topped with a very cool cafe overlooking Amstel River and the city.

Anne Frank House — Very moving and well done museum experience, which also houses the Foundation Otto Frank established to promote tolerance among youth. Also, Van Gogh Museum — Honestly, a bit of a disappointing look at my favorite artists’ work. More stuffy institution than interactive, engaging experience. Still the Museum offers an interesting look at Van Gogh’s development and an extensive look at the work of artists who influenced him over time (naturally, this list is extensive).

American Book Center — Very cool center for international exchange and excellent bookstore in a great space also referred to as the Treehouse.

Topographies of Terror — A look at the institution of terror, a dense collection of images, documents and text about the institutional structures of the Nazi regime, erected at the site of the former SS headquarters.

Agathe Snow at the Guggenheim Berlin — How appropriate: “reclaiming” the the world’s monuments, landmarks, and historical sites.

Amsterdam Red Light District, Vondelpark and Film Institute, Museum Island of Berlin, Brandenburg Gate

See other posts in this series:

Gap Year Travels: Modern Jazz in Prague, Mozart in Vienna

Mentorship vs. A Personal Board of Directors

Image Courtesty of Flickr Creative Commons

“Like avocado appliances and Friendster, mentoring is well and truly over,” wrote one of my favorite young bloggers, “Entry-level Rebel” Jessica Stillman.  If so, where would young professionals find the all-important connections and guidance traditionally cultivated in the mentor relationship?

Instead of identifying with one mentor, which can be counterproductive, she writes, young people should embrace a personal board of directors, “a group of people you consult regularly to get advice and feedback.”

Call it mentor promiscuity, but I have embraced a slew of mentors myself, realizing upon reading Jessica’s post that I had created my own personal board of directors. There are the Academics from college–the Composer and the Ethnomusicologist–and, more recently, the Nonprofit Executive-Thought Leader, the Artist-Entrepreneur, and the Leadership Guru who happened to offer professional coaching services to those of us listening to Rosetta Thurman‘s radio show.

Indeed, these folks have provided insight and opened doors for me during my unfolding Gap Year. Each is generous and each offers at different times a particular expertise and set of resources. Though I feel I receive much more than I give, I appreciate and understand how these relationships help me to see my path and to move forward. I diligently cultivate and maintain these relationships through emails, hand-written notes and initiating meetings over coffee.

Cheers to the generosity of mentors everywhere and to the members of my so-called personal board of directors!

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