“Creativity Belongs to All of Us”: An Interview with SPARK!’s Nicole Poole and Jessica Ray

photo by Zach Seat

OKC-based multi-disciplinary arts collective explores compositional frontiers through an inclusive process called soundpainting

Founded by Nicole Poole in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, SPARK! is a nonprofit organization with a radical approach to public art. Through intuition, improvisation, and open-minded collaboration, the collective seeks to connect entire communities through creative engagement. Its goal is to “Make Love Cool Again.”

Guided by Poole and production coordinator Jessica Ray, SPARK!’s latest project is YIELD, a new community-sourced performance commissioned by Oklahoma Contemporary. The piece will feature notable figures in Oklahoma City music including Nymasis, Changing FrEQencies, and J. Cruise Berry. The sold-out finale happens tonight, 6:00 pm, at Oklahoma Contemporary.

The following interview with Nicole Poole featuring input from Jessica Ray was conducted for a feature in the Oklahoma Gazette, which you can read here.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What is sound painting?

Nicole Poole: Soundpainting is just so cool. It’s a specialized sign language that allows instant communication between artists to create or sculpt material on the spot. It was created by composer Walter Thompson, who I have had the extreme good fortune of working with since the mid-1990’s. I’m a core member of his orchestra and am one of only a few theater artists in the world certified in its use. That’s led to world travel and relationships with artists from across the globe. We may not come from the same culture or even speak the same language, but with over 1500 gestures, Soundpainting allows us to connect on a deeply creative level that transcends all of that. I’ve learned deep listening from an Algerian Tabla player, the power of silence from a Jersey-born Trumpet player, how to use tension and economy from a knighted French composer, how to lean into authenticity from a Catalunian choreographer, how to explode expectations and achieve artistic transparency by Jazz composer Anthony Braxton – the list goes on and on. My family is made up of artists from 34 countries. Soundpainting has literally opened worlds for me, and it is an honor to introduce it to the creatives of Oklahoma. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How have you adapted sound painting to include other art forms?

Poole: Soundpainting was created for multiple art forms – musicians, dancers, actors, visual artists…we’ve expanded it to include DJ, poetry and Streetdance, because that language didn’t exist; however, the basic bones are there. In all, the creative impulse is the same with everyone; we just translate it differently, and it’s deeply gratifying to watch local artists sink their teeth into deep collaboration and dialogue about creation.

photo by Zach Seat

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What is SPARK!?

Poole: We’re an artist-led nonprofit who work together to explore new pathways for contemporary performance, centered on individual value and shared humanity. We’re actors, dancers, DJs, musicians, visual artists and performance artists from a huge spread of cultures, abilities and backgrounds who are paid living wages to rethink how the arts engage with each other, and with the public. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What does SPARK! literally stand for?

Poole: Well, the word is more important than any acronym. We all carry a “spark” within us that allows us to lean on love, community and creative imagining. When we began last year, Hui Cha Poos (company member and founder of RACE Dance Collective) and I were playing with names and this one hit us as being perfect. We tried to retrofit it into an acronym, and while “Spontaneous Acts of Radical Kindness” was close, we decided to just leave it as-is.

Make Oklahoma WeirderWhat is SPARK!’s mission?

Poole: Our founding mission is to rethink public engagement with the arts, expand the creative capacity of Oklahoma City, explore cultural creative expression, and value artists & cultural workers. That will evolve as we evolve, but it’s a damn fine place to start.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Who are you?

Poole: I’m a human who believes creativity is an innate part of all of us, and it’s always available, waiting to be called forth. I try to use my own gifts to uplift my community, and collaboration is my love language. I’m also a survivor of Complex Trauma, and know in my bones that artistic expression can heal a lot of wounds. If you want all the details, you can hit my website (nicolepoole.com). 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What spurred you to start SPARK!?

Poole: As a performer, my art is connecting with people. During the height of the pandemic, I had to rethink how to do that. I started doing chalk art in the park to provide a little delightful disruption for my neighbors, and the experience was really magical. People from all over responded through my Instagram @wordsmiff405. That led to a pop-up performance series in Downtown OKC called “YOU ARE HERE” that paid artists to engage one-on-one with people, 6 feet apart. (With thanks to Downtown OKC Partnerships/ULI Oklahoma for the grant that allowed artists to respond to the pandemic!)  Finally, I saw RACE Dance Collective’s outdoor show, “Aqueous,” at Oklahoma Contemporary, and realized that contemporary performance actually had a place here. Immediately after, I hit up Hui Cha Poos and Brandi Kelley to ask if they would be interested in collaborating, and they were enthusiastic. COVID kept busting our chops, but after January 6, 2021, I couldn’t wait anymore. I know in my bones that the artform I am trained in, live composition, creates a space for people to come together and interact through creativity. Science has proven that our heartbeats actually synchronize during moments like these – it’s called Positivity Resonance, and evolutionary psychologists believe this is the fundamental building block of love. I called a couple of other people who were into the idea, and all collided together – people, circumstance and catalyst, and BOOM. SPARK! was born.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Why the red jumpsuits?

Poole: First and foremost, artists are workers – beyond entertainment and commodity, we work to inspire imagination and metaphoric thought…we’re sort of repairmen for the spiritual elevator, if you will. I wanted something that was immediately identifiable, so jumpsuits it was. They’re red because it’s a lucky color in Asian cultures (thanks Hui Cha)…and it’s the color we all wear on the inside.

photo by Zach Seat

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Who are some of your collaborators & what do they do?

Poole: Everyone in the SPARK! company and our Extended Fam is an accomplished artist. It’s a mind-boggling collection of talent! Here’s the list – please check out their bios at sparklahoma.org and follow them on the socials!

Cruise Berry, Composition, Conducting & Piano; Zachary Burns, Filmmaker; Chelsea Bushong, Harp & Dance; Nicole Emmons, Filmmaking, Visual Art & Animation; Changing FrEQuencies, Dance, Poetry, Vocals; Leslie Hensley aka Balthazar, Theater, Performance Art & Visual Art; Anna Jans (Business Manager), Dance; Jasmine Jones (Company Manager), Visual Art; Nicholas Klein, Percussion, Tap & Harmonica; Angel Little, Visual Art, Graffiti, Freestyle & Angel Things; James Metcalfe, Percussion & Composition; Aaron Michael, Violin, Viola & Theater; Kiona Millirons (Consultant), Visual Artist; Hui Cha Poos, Dance; Jessica Ray (YIELD’s co-Director), Dance, Choreography, Filmmaking; Chris “Twix” Shepard, Dance & Streetdance; Zach Seat, Dance & Photography; Tony Tee aka DJ Nymasis, DJ, Poetry, Rap, Percussion & Vocals. Our Extended Fam includes Tina Brown, ASL Interpreter, Jacob Burns, Filmmaker; Brandi Kelley, Dancer & Choreographer; Jake Kelley, Filmmaker; Pedro Peréz, Sound Design & Percussion, Rita Scranton, Actor, Mime & Clown; and Morgan Timmons, ASL Interpreter. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How important is diversity to SPARK!?

Poole: We’re not SPARK! without it. I mean, REALLY. To even begin to reimagine the world and address our greatest challenges, we must be informed by the full spectrum of humans that make up our community …from race, color, religious creed, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, political affiliation, ancestry, age, physical ability, neurological structure, genetic information, veteran status…and any other human distinction that hasn’t been labeled yet.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What are a couple of your favorite accomplishments so far with SPARK?

Poole: There are so many. They’re all centered around people and watching their eyes shine as they come to new realizations about their own capacity for creative expression, from artists to “civilians.” Creativity belongs to all of us. As for a couple of recent examples… each company member is invited (and sometimes nagged) to get up in front of the group and lead a short piece. A lot of artists are uncomfortable in leadership, as their careers are generally dependent on gigs or being solo creators, centered on doing what is asked of them. Watching every person in the company step up and call into being what they want to see, AND to pay them for it, is the best feeling ever. Also, I had the opportunity to speak on my role in SPARK! to an auditorium of arts students at Capitol Hill High School (with deep thanks to Stormi Luni and Adelita Dixon-Hernandez). I took the opportunity to Soundpaint them…going on a creative journey with them from awkward isolation and insecurity to rowdy, joyful, collaborative glee seriously gave me hope for our future.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Why is it important to pay artists a living wage?

Poole: Artists serve as both healers and visionaries for our communities, bringing people together and helping them to imagine better futures. We provide a huge portion of the intangibles that make a community vibrant. Today, we need this transformational work more than ever. The pandemic revealed the fault lines in a system that is set up to exploit artists’ work through outdated ideas like “a cut of the door” and “exposure dollars,” neither of which keep the lights on. Too, there are little to no funding opportunities for individual artists in Oklahoma, so how the hell are we supposed to move the needle without support? ART IS WORK and we must value our creatives. (She readjusts her beret and looks squarely at each person reading this.)

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Why is it necessary to make your art — or any art — accessible?

Poole: I prefer the term “no barrier” to “accessible.” If every human in our community is valued, then those of us who serve our communities are obligated to ensure everyone can benefit from the experience. It takes dialogue, engagement, intentionality and plans of action to remove barriers to participation in any field, but the arts in particular are uniquely poised to help us heal and feel a sense of value. SPARK! is making good efforts so far, and we are learning as we go how to expand our capacity to engage more communities and knock down more walls. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What is YIELD?

Poole: YIELD is a creative investigation into place and belonging in Oklahoma City. It is conceived, designed and directed by me and Jessica Ray, an OKC dancer, choreographer and filmmaker now living in Brooklyn. We’re providing the sketch and the structure, and our artists and community are contributing to the flesh. The basic gist is this: in March, we put together a huge panel of community leaders and experts to dialogue with the public about historical, cultural and environmental perspectives on the land we share here in OKC. The public was asked to contribute real-time written reflections/responses to what they were hearing, which “yielded” about 150 index cards of material. Tony Tee & I then got together and curated these into a six-stanza collaborative poem that almost wrote itself…it is a stunning snapshot of who we are as a community and what we hold to be important right now. 

We then started work to translate each line of that collaborative poem into a different discipline: dance, music, theater and visual art. We created a free, weekly workshop series, led by extraordinary artists, and invited the public to join our artists to explore the fullest expression possible of each of those lines.

When our (free) culminating performance happens on May 26th at Oklahoma Contemporary, the audience will be led through a journey of the poem, which is also a journey from independence to interdependence. So they’ll go from being spectators to integral components of the piece.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How did you come into working with Oklahoma Contemporary?

Poole: In 2020, as I was navel-gazing with the rest of the world, I cooked up this idea. I reached out to Oklahoma Contemporary to see if we could use their huge beautiful new space to hold workshops, and they said yes. From March until August, the company was able to meet regularly there to learn Soundpainting and come up with material that we presented to the public during performances at Scissortail, the Paramount parking lot and for the beautiful kids at Pivot. OCAC asked us if we could develop a response to artist Maren Hassinger’s installation “Nature, Sweet Nature” on view in their sculpture garden, and just as we were ramping up to develp it, we got Omicroned. The project was postponed until the Spring, but in the meantime we formed a nonprofit and the project expanded to more fully embody our mission.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How does YIELD related to the Nature, Sweet Nature sculptural installation at OK Contemporary?

Poole: Maren Hassinger’s sculptures are really striking in composition, form and material – Hassinger’s focus is on Equality and the relationship between the natural and industrial worlds. Those concepts are extraordinary, but they felt too large, somehow. I hiked out to the site during a sleepless night in January, and looked at them every which way to figure out our entrypoint. The ground underneath them literally began singing to me – the sound and movement of the wind blowing through the native grasses at the base of the installation struck me as so profound. All of these big concepts that we’re all struggling with in the world right now, and yet the very land under our feet is there, quietly bearing witness. I can’t think of “land” and “Oklahoma” without hearing the jaunty verse “we belong to the land,” so it all just clicked. Oklahoma City is unlike any other place on earth for our collision of cultures, histories and ecologies. If we were to investigate all the layers we’re standing on, how could that investigation itself bring forth new pathways for belonging?

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How has YIELD been going so far?

Jessica Ray (Co-Director): YIELD has truly been an adventure, but It’s been so refreshing to step into a room with new faces from the community that are ready, excited, and open to engage with art making. Hearing the circulation of new ideas and the willingness to lean into imagination has been rewarding.

Poole (Co-Director): It’s mind-blowing. We had a loose idea and the willingness and trust to put it into motion to see where it could go, and the participation from our community has exploded all of our expectations. Oklahoma City is full of some of the most generous, inventive creative souls I have ever encountered. Too, I’ve got to give a shout-out to the team at Oklahoma Contemporary for their support. They are helping us increase our capacity for professionalism at every turn. It’s an absolute dream to be able to do this in my hometown.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What has YIELD taught you?

Ray: YIELD is a huge lesson in collaboration. We are navigating multiple disciplines and bringing them together to present a work, and while that’s happening, we’ve also committed to hearing the public, and listening to community ideas and responses. In that, there is so much to carry, but in that weight and responsibility there has been so much joy in realizing that the main point to this process is process. How are we showing up for each other? How are we listening? Yield has taught me to embody these thoughts and hold them closely.

Poole: YIELD has taught me to step up and embrace my fears, and to let other people in to help. It has also taught me that, while my ideas do not necessarily conform to existing conventions, there’s room for me here. There’s a much wider community than I ever imagined who are open and generous and ready to create something new. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What can people expect from the final performance?

Ray: I think people can expect the unexpected, hah! We are creating a visual and sonic treat for the audience, but we are also asking them to meditate and examine their truths. Who belongs to this land? How can we navigate our truths when they oppose each other?

Poole: I echo Jess’s comments. For me, it’s an opportunity for everyone in our community to come together to witness, reflect upon, and, if they choose, to participate in this beautiful, complex “living collage” that we’ve designed as a reflection of who we are right now as the community of Oklahoma City.  It’s also an opportunity to be blown away by the artists of Oklahoma City, and to explore your own connection to the creativity that is part of all of us.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: In what sense is the performance interactive?

Ray: There are definitely elements of call and response, within the piece, so the audience should feel welcome to participate there. Because the performance takes place and moves through multiple sites at OCAC I think even having to activate the sense of creating different perspectives through how you decide to view the work, by simply deciding where to sit or stand makes you an activate participant.

Poole: All of YIELD has been interactive; each person who shows up offers something to the project’s creation, whether as silent witness or as a participant. I hope people can understand that our process really is the product – the culminating performance is just one more iteration of it.  As for the interactivity, what Jess said. I also want to add, for the introverts out there, that we will not be smashing fruits or singling people out. That just feels aggressive and performative. All of YIELD is an invitation to explore connection and creativity, in whatever way that manifests for you. All of you is welcome here. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Are pop-up performances still happening? 

Poole: Once we’ve delivered YIELD, we’ll for sure pop up around the city. (If anyone reading this really wants one for their event/space, just reach out and we’ll figure out how to make it happen!)

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What can folks do to support SPARK?

Poole: Show up in whatever way feels right for you –everyone brings something to the table that could help! 

We do have sponsorships available for YIELD, which are perfect for businesses who vibe with our mission. We’re a nonprofit with a heavy expense for artist fees, so individuals (that means you) can make an immediate impact through a tax-deductible donation at sparklahoma.org. We also need space to gather and create, so if you have a usable space that isn’t being utilized, it’s a fantastic opportunity to let us energize it!  We’re always looking for ways to provide meaningful equity to community members who want to work with us, so things like gift cards for food and services can be put to good use. The intangibles of support are also important – SHOW UP! Follow & share our social media (@sparklahoma), come to our workshops, our performances, sign up for our mailing list, drop us notes…it’s not easy being the weird new little kid on the block, so let us know you’re out there.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Anything else you’d like to add?

Poole: The most meaningful aspects of life cannot be explained through words.

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aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.

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