STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago. Come with us on a walk to the playground at Perez Elementary in Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood, with artist Victoria Bradford. We’re walking along like normal walking people on a windy, gray Saturday afternoon, until we get to this mural outside the school. Then Victoria stops. And she starts to dance.
VICTORIA BRADFORD: Everyday, everyday I’m making a neighborhood dance. No matter where I am, every day there has to be—and everybody has to understand that.
SH: For more than 500 days now, Victoria has been strolling through neighborhoods around Chicago or wherever she happens to be, with no particular destination in mind, until some parcel of earth or concrete strikes her fancy, at which point she sets up her iPhone on a little tripod and performs a completely improvised neighborhood dance. No planning, no do-overs.
VB: Over time through walking through the neighborhood, finding locations, finding stages as it were, you begin to have a certain kind of familiarity with each and every potential stage, and so you’re ready when you get there.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: Victoria does not waste time. Exactly two minutes and ten seconds after we walk onto the school grounds, the camera is rolling and she is dancing.
SH: It’s an incredible performance—anxious, contorted, a little disturbed and a lot compelling, as Victoria is pushed, pulled, pressured and bent at sharp angles. And as I watch, I am feeling those things. I am watching her feel those things. And it’s powerful.
VB: There’s these little moments of glitchiness in the music which really felt appropriate, because I feel like personally I’m experiencing a lot of glitchy things. Like, everything seems smooth and good on the surface, but a lot underneath is, there’s this underlying tension.
CH: There’s all of this emotion and expression, and it is happening outdoors, in public. But no one else is watching, and it’s practically silent. Steve and I can’t hear the music—just the wind and the scraping of Victoria’s boots against the pavement.
SH: And then, three minutes later, it’s done. Victoria starts walking back to her studio like no big deal. So what inspires Victoria to wander her city each day, every day, rain or shine, and then to dance? Find out, on this episode of Cedar Cathedral.
CH: Our show, Cedar Cathedral, is by and for people pursuing the creative life in the Great Lakes. Makers, dancers, authors, chefs, you name it — on the show we introduce you to people doing inspiring work, and tell the stories of what the creative life looks like for each of them. The name Cedar Cathedral is a reference to Ernest Hemingway. He said the cedar forests of Michigan were more grand and inspiring than a cathedral ceiling.
SH: What we take from that is that this place can move a creative soul to craft something extraordinary, something sublime. We aim to celebrate that, and to foster it. Thanks to all of you for listening to our first episodes, and helping spread the word.
(RE)LEARNING TO DANCE
VB: It is definitely a portrait in many ways, or autobiographical, and you’re saying things with your body that you don’t necessarily have the ways to say with your words.
SH: Victoria’s biography includes a fair amount of wandering, of twists and turns. She danced, as a kid, and studied art in college. She worked at a restaurant, a hospital, a sugar-cane refinery, a tech startup, a university. She spent two years in a PhD program studying comparative literature before deciding she wasn’t that into comparative literature. She created an arts-advocacy group in Louisiana that was so cool a local TV station in Lake Charles named it the city’s ‘Person of the Year,' even though the group, called Poor Pony, was not actually a person.
CH: But she wasn’t making art, which was her first love. She doesn’t really rediscover art, and dance, until she turns 30 and moves to Chicago for grad school at the Art Institute. Even then, she was trying to figure it out.
VB: I had actually gone back to Louisiana, because I had this notion that the work I did like Poor Pony was so important and that I should be doing work like that. Because here in Chicago nobody feels a pin drop if I do it if it’s something I make happen. It’s just too big and my impact is so small.
CH: But back home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, she soon felt the urge to do something creative. She started dancing in the driveway, and filming those dances. The initial result was … okay.
VB: I didn’t really like watching them because it was ugly. There was nothing interesting about where I was dancing, and nothing was changing about the dances each day.
CH: So she changed venues.
VB: And then I changed location and I went around to the front of the house and I made a dance there, and that’s the first neighborhood dance. And then I went to the neighbor’s house. And then I went to the next neighbor’s house, and then I decided I’m just going to do the whole neighborhood and it was neighborhood dances. And I was writing letters to every resident and mailing them the information about the dance and where they could find it online, and thanking them for their hospitality, for letting me impose upon their property. And that was just really lovely. And at a certain point I finished the Chalkley subdivision and I was like well I just want to keep dancing, I want to keep doing this.
SH: The neighborhood dances were born—a 500-day adventure that’s followed Victoria from Louisiana back to Chicago and corresponded with her creative flourishing. Along the way, she’s been gawked at, ignored, chased away, and celebrated.
VB: I had one woman actually sweep her front steps for me to dance, because she saw me as I was setting up my camera. She said what’re you going to do? Well, I was gonna dance right there and she goes (gasp) just a second and she ran inside the house, she got out her broom and started sweeping and sweeping and she came out and she watched and afterwards she invited me inside.
SH: And of course anything you do that consistently is going to be a struggle.
VB: The worst the most awkward ones are when I’m sick and I call in sick to work, but I still have to go make a neighborhood dance. And, like, you know, my boss follows me on Facebook and she’s going to see that neighborhood dance and I feel really awkward about it.
SH: You lost your job for neighborhood dancing?
VB: No, she’s really great. It’s a more internal anxiety and guilt thing. I’m Catholic.
SH: That’s one of my favorite parts of this daily dance. Not the anxiety and guilt, but the fact that those things, not to mention lack of confidence or whatever else might get in the way of creativity on any given day, are steamrolled by sheer force of habit and the promise that Victoria has made to herself. She starts walking, and she dances, and even on the bad days, a strange thing happens.
VB: Sometimes the days where I feel like I’ve danced the worst are the best dances, right? And so sometimes I don’t have a good self-perception or internal, sort of, monitor on what it’s going to look like. And that's really important actually because I can’t self-judge in the moment. I have to just be out there, do the thing and the times when I do judge in the moment that it's actually the bad dance, so I have to be okay with being the crazy lady on the sidewalk.
LIFE OF AN ARTIST
SH: Five hundred days later, Victoria’s artistic career has taken off, with exhibitions and performances around the country, including a presentation at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. And, I mean, she is hustling to make it happen — for a while working three jobs in Chicago, while working on two major art projects called Dinner Dances and Skirts, that are separate from the Neighborhood Dances. So, three jobs, a lot of other creative work, life is happening around all of that, and still Victoria takes time every day for a neighborhood dance — the walk, the dance, the walk back, and then the edit, because the official version of each dance is just an Instagram-sized, 15-second snippet.
CH: And now all of those neighborhood dances, stacked one on top of the other, every day, are beginning to take on a collective shape. That’s literally true on Victoria’s studio wall, where there are photos of the first 500 dances. But she’s also inspiring others with this project. Three other dancers have begun making and posting neighborhood dances — you can find them all by searching the Instagram hashtag #NeighborhoodDances. And this month, Victoria began an eight-month Neighborhood Dances residency at the Chicago Cultural Center with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
SH: The idea is to fuse the neighborhood dance project with music and then to build toward a larger, public performance later this year. So, the neighborhood dances have gone from a driveway in Lake Charles, Louisiana, all the way to Michigan Avenue—seems like a fine time to reflect.
VB: Oh gosh. I feel like I have not had enough space to reflect on it. It’s hard to find that space because you’re doing it everyday and so there’s never a pause. You can’t pause the project at all. You just have to keep going.
SH: That works, too. This whole story works not because a well-orchestrated plan was executed to perfection, but because an artist remembered who she was and then created, and persevered, and walked, and danced, and now all those many days later, just look at what she’s made.
CH: To see Victoria Bradford’s neighborhood dances, follow @vebradford on Instagram. We’ve also got photos on the @cedarcathedral Instagram, as well as at cedarcathedral.com.
BEN ROSENBUSH & THE BRIGHTON
SH: Now to music. At the end of each episode, we feature a song by a great Great Lakes band, and this week let’s head to Minneapolis. I love this track, by Ben Rosenbush and the Brighton. It’s called This Fire.
CH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us — Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Victoria Bradford and to Ben Rosenbush, and to you for listening.
SH: We could really use your help spreading the word about Cedar Cathedral, and in addition to telling your friends, one thing that would be especially helpful is a review on iTunes or in your podcasting app of choice. Thanks so much, and we’ll be back in a couple weeks with another tale of artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes.