photo credit: Cole Inky Sarar Profile: Cynthia French Cynthia French, MFA '03, has always made it her business to bring art to life. She has worked as a writer and spoken word artist for the last twelve years, performing around the U.S. and in Canada and England. She has a decade of experience teaching writing and performance at colleges, schools, libraries, and community centers and has worked with several arts organizations in the Twin Cities, including The Loft, Intermedia Arts, Youth Performance Company, and ArtiCulture. For someone who has taken to the track as Dottie Hazzard for the Minnesota RollerGirls and has recently started doing stand up comedy in the Twin Cities, starting down a new path in arts programming and education might not seem thrilling, but moving to Little Falls, MN, in November 2010 to work with the Great River Arts Association has been quite exciting for Cynthia. In a recent interview with Exchange editor Carlee Tressel, she took time to reflect on her new position as Executive Director and how her creative life enhances—and is enhanced by—the work she is engaged in now. Q. What are your primary responsibilities as Executive Director for Great River Arts? A. We are an arts organization that runs a multi-disciplinary art center, and it's my job to make sure everything gets done. My primary job responsibilities are to make sure that we can pay our bills (managing the budget, writing grants, raising funds), but I also manage the majority of the programming (concerts, performing arts events, community art projects, etc.). I have a part-time Assistant Director who runs the visual arts program (we have three visual arts galleries), the volunteer program, and the retail store. Q How has earning a Master of Fine Arts degree at Hamline prepared you for this position? A. I can think of two ways: First, the MFA program encourages creative thinking. In a lot of ways, directing an arts center is like writing a poem—you choose your words carefully, trying to make the largest impact in the smallest way while at the same time being inspiring and reaching out to others. Secondly, you have to be able to negotiate Board relations and working with artists, government officials, and other members of the community. It's much like being in a writer's workshop—or on the editorial staff of Water~Stone Review. Overall, being able to see things in a number of ways is a skill that I use every day. Q. You were deeply involved in arts and other activities in the Twin Cities for many years. What have been the challenges or surprises moving from a larger venue (the Cities) to a smaller one (Little Falls, MN)? A. There are no coffee shops here. As a writer, I thrive in the coffee shop environment. It's a place where you can be alone yet be surrounded by a number of other people, all working on their own projects. You can feed off their energy. You can avoid things like the television or book shelves, which tend to suck me in when I'm just at home with the cats. I haven't yet found a place here where I feel comfortable writing. The other challenge I've faced so far is that a number of the artists up here have a narrower view of what is possible with their art. Theatre = full stage productions, for example. Having been involved in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, having been a theatre critic for the Hamline Oracle, and being a spoken word artist myself, I see theatre as something much larger, with more options and possibilities. I'm trying to find creative ways to expose the community to what is possible without scaring them off. I should note that I have only been here since November 2010, so everything is still new. Q. How has this position inspired your writing work? What are you working on now? A. So far, I have been mostly inspired in the realm of visual arts, but visual arts always inspires my writing, so it's only a matter of time. I have not been on speaking terms with my creative nonfiction manuscript for the last few years, and it is currently sitting exposed on my kitchen table. I just started a Creative Writing Boot Camp here at the Art Center. We just had our first meeting, and each of the members is in a very similar place—we have a collection of stories that we want to turn into a book. I continue to work on poetry. I was a semi-finalist for a manuscript publication last year. Being turned down was, in the end, a positive thing, because it made me look at my work as a collection. I have been writing to try and fill in the holes and develop what I hope to be a much more solid, cohesive work. During the last five years, my focus has really been on performing, and I'm just starting to turn it back to the writing, something that I think will be helped by my move—once I can find a replacement for the coffee shops. Q. You graduated from the Graduate School of Liberal Studies in 2003, but you are still affiliated with Hamline. Also, tell us about your involvement with the School of Environmental Studies and how you got involved. A. I will forever be affiliated with Hamline University. I did my undergraduate work there (Class of '95) and my MFA in 2003. I worked in the Undergraduate Admission Office for four years and was a tour guide when I was an undergraduate student. I really appreciate the values of the university— to educate citizens. I love the belief that you should always be working to make your community better, to give something back. I became involved with the School of Environmental Studies (SES) about seven years ago. I believe that one of the English teachers attended a poetry slam that I was organizing. She approached me about doing a workshop with her class, and I have been visiting her classroom at least once a year every since. The SES also has a poetry slam program that it has developed with the Caponi Art Park. All of the students at SES have to complete a project that deals with community outreach. Two students each year partner with the Caponi Art Park and me, and we plan a teen poetry slam. The students plan a date for a workshop, and I coordinate the instructor for that workshop. They then market the event and drum up media attention, etc., and the day of the actual poetry slam, I come to the park, emcee the event, and bring another poet to act as the featured artist in addition to the competition. This year, at my annual workshop in the English department at SES, I was approached by a student asking if I'd be interested in interviewing with him as a possible mentor for his mentor class. In the end, he asked me to be his mentor, and I helped to connect him with spoken word events and professional development opportunities as he developed his writing, tried his hand at performing, and explored his educational and career options. I just received an email from him last week thanking me for being his mentor and letting me know that he had decided to go to Hamline University next year (a school that wasn't on his radar when I first talked to him). I couldn't be more proud! Q. What advice might you give students who are finishing their MFA or MALS degrees and looking for opportunities to put their degrees to work? A. I would say that the degree is what you make it. Just because you have an MFA doesn't mean that people are going to start knocking down your doors to offer you jobs. I have been involved in programming and arts education for over ten years now. During that time, I have been a focused performer, I have taught writing classes at area technical colleges, I have volunteered, I have planned poetry festivals, and I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Being a writer is hard work. Being an artist is hard work. I tell my younger students that it's kind of like wanting to play professional sports. How many football players actually make it onto the field in the NFL? If it's what you want, then do it. Write. Study. Get involved with your community. You might not win a Pulitzer Prize in literature, but maybe you'll make a difference. If your goal is to win a poetry slam, go to the poetry slams. Sign up. Try. If your goal is to get published, write. Write more. Send your writing out into the world. Keep trying. Find mentors. Don't give up. The cool thing with writing, unlike football, is that you're never too old to be a writer. Information about Great River Arts Association The Great River Arts Association is a private nonprofit local arts agency that was established in 1992 by arts leaders in the Little Falls, MN, area to provide business management services to arts groups and enhance community arts opportunities. We are located at the Great River Arts Center, a historic building in downtown Little Falls. The Art Center is home to our main art gallery, custom frame shop, gift shop, art classes, music and performing arts events. We manage two additional visual arts galleries located at the Family Medical Center and the Morrison County Government Center. Currently, we have a call out for our City Limits Open Art Show. There is a $10 fee to submit up to two pieces of art under the theme "City Limits." Art work can be marked for sale or not for sale. The show will be up in the main gallery at the Great River Arts Center in June and July. Registration deadline is May 28th. Arts in the Park starts Sunday, June 5. We host concerts and other arts events in the park throughout the summer. Be sure to check our schedule, which features every kind of music from country to hip-hop, rock to heavy metal. Find out more information on all of our events at www.greatart.org or find us on Facebook - Great River Arts Association.