About Jason Porter

A former classroom teacher, Jason Porter is currently the Skirball’s Associate Director of Education. Over the course of his teaching career, he served as a department chair, an administrator, a dean, and for one ridiculous semester, the biology teacher. Outside of his work in education, he is a published writer, parent, husband, cyclist, tennis player, soccer dad, and a collector of antique lunch boxes from the 1970s and 1980s (with thermoses only). He hates downhill skiing and the Eagles.

Puppet Talk with Joshua Holden and Mr. Nicholas

On stage with Mr. Nicholas. Photo by Shawn Patrick Higgins.

On stage with Mr. Nicholas. Photo by Shawn Patrick Higgins.

This year’s Skirball Puppet Festival is all about storytelling: the performers were chosen because of their talents as tale-tellers, the art projects will include making puppets to perform in a grand finale story, and a number of new large-scale performances will take place in the Skirball’s magnificent outdoor spaces. One of the most exciting story-shows featured at this year’s fest is by award-winning puppeteer and performer Joshua Holden, creator and star of The Joshua Show. In anticipation of the upcoming festival, I thought I’d find out a little more about this New York–based performer and his journey to puppet stardom. I sat down with Joshua and Mr. Nicholas at a small coffee shop in Park Slope, where we talked puppets, bow ties, and Mister Rogers.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I liked puppets when I was a kid, but the thought of being a puppeteer never crossed my mind until after I graduated college. I first stepped on stage at the age of seven to play the title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. In high school I studied acting at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and later earned a BFA in acting from Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University. I received a call from the Chicago Children’s Theatre asking me to audition to assist master puppeteer Blaire Thomas on a new puppet show of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. After the weirdest audition I had ever been on, I somehow booked the job. Blaire was incredibly patient and giving. From there, people started hiring me as a puppeteer. I kept it secret that I had no clue what I was doing until I gained confidence and eventually fell madly in love with the art form! I moved to New York City and landed a role on the Broadway tour of Avenue Q. I also toured the nation with Peter Pan threesixty° as the lead puppeteer. Then in March 2012, I created a short ten-minute sketch for a puppet slam in Chicago that has grown into a full-length, award-winning nationally touring smash hit. (Wow, it feels really cool to say that.)

Avenue Q! Can you find me? Courtesy of The Joshua Show.

Avenue Q! Can you find me? Courtesy of The Joshua Show.

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Yarn Bombing the Skirball

<i>Forest, For the Trees</i> at the Skirball. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Forest, For the Trees at the Skirball.

On select dates from January 15 through 25, visitors to the Skirball will be able to experience Forest, For the Trees, a unique and beautiful installation by local collective Yarn Bombing Los Angeles (YBLA) and the Arroyo Arts Collective. YBLA have been creating public art with fabric in Los Angeles for a number of years—from community projects to guerilla “bombs”—in locations all over town. Perhaps you’ve seen a parking meter wearing a sweater or a museum façade covered in afghans? I sat down with Carol Zou, YBLA’s self-described “head poncho,” to discuss this whimsical environmental installation that will live (and grow!) in our Family Art Studio for a brief but lively and colorful period.

What exactly is a yarn bomb?
Yarn bombing is a form of self-initiated public art using knitting or crochet. A yarn bomb transforms any item in a dull, drab environment by wrapping it in a colorful crocheted or knitted yarn piece.

What is it about working with yarn, felt, and other fiber-based materials that appeals to people? It seems like, right now, people of all ages and stripes are knitting or doing needlepoint and macramé. Are we just in the midst of a crafty era or is there something about these practices that appeals to people universally?
There’s a couple of answers to this question, and I think it all has to do with the tension between tradition and technology. With the rise of a digital and virtual world, people are starting to become nostalgic for activities that involve working with their hands in a tactile way. Working with traditional technologies such as knitting or crocheting is also a response to the development of new technologies—an individual, handcrafted object becomes really special in this age of mass production. Additionally, people participate in knitting and crocheting in order to connect to past generations. During our workshops, people inevitably start talking about their grandmother or their aunt who did this type of work. If we look at this trend as a larger metaphor, I would say the renewed interest in fiber arts is about people’s ability to find their personal identity in a hyper-digitized world through connecting to their family traditions and handcrafting an individual object.


How did YBLA get started? Continue reading

A Visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, NYC

“Do you remember?” That’s a question we often ask visitors to the Skirball, be they school kids, adults, or seniors. Skirball exhibitions—both permanent and changing—look back at moments in American history that have served as fulcrums of social and cultural change, encouraging people to trace their own personal stories through history. Through this reflection, our memories connect us to one another.

The National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opened this year in New York City after a lengthy development process, uses personal narrative to describe the history of an event that is still, for many of us, vividly etched in our memories. Most of us remember where we were when we heard the news of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center; can recall the frantic phone calls to friends and loved ones; still see the images of the Twin Towers crumbling into dust.

I approached my first visit to the new museum with slight apprehension, worried the imagery might be more than my daughter and mother (my companions for the visit) would be prepared to handle. My mom had been in Manhattan on 9/11 and has strong memories of the panic and the dust and the trauma. And my daughter is only fourteen. But the museum person in me was interested in what emotional resonance the experience would bring. The Skirball likewise makes use—in its Holocaust memorial and in the exhibitions—of first-person narrative, immersive experience, and evocative objects. Continue reading

The Power of Memory

“I remember.”

These words begin many of the most powerful stories we hear. The first-person telling of an experience is one of a kind; it includes details that can only be recounted by the individual who lived it. Passing stories on from generation to generation and from community to community is central to our mission here at the Skirball. Simply put, it’s a place where people’s histories—and a people’s history—matter.shoah gallery

As of this fall, visitors to our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, now have the opportunity to view testimonials of Holocaust survivors provided by USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Since I oversee the development of programs for school groups, it fell to me and my staff to create a Visions and Values gallery tour for high school students that not only includes the video testimonials, but that gives teenagers an understanding of the socio-economic and political context that led to national socialism in Germany and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

It has been a daunting task.
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Taking a Ride

bike-sign-1The month of May marks annual National Bike Month, during which people in cities all over the country are encouraged to ride more, learn about bike safety and mechanics, and commute to work. I myself have been a bike commuter for almost twenty years, first when I lived in Seattle, riding through rain, sleet, and hail to get to my high school teaching job, and now climbing through a mountain pass to get from my home in Santa Monica to my job at the Skirball.

I am often asked why I ride my bike to work (and if I’ve totally lost my mind or have a death wish), especially in the last few years during the massive construction project along the 405, which has made the 405 corridor bumpier and more haphazard (and hazardous).

arriving-at-skirbsFor me, riding my bike has always been a mix of personal pleasure and public service. I enjoy the exercise of it, the hour or so of vigorous riding to begin my day. But I also see it as a way to honor that very core Jewish value which we at the Skirball try to impart through our programs and exhibitions: that of taking care of the earth and each other. I feel, perhaps naively, that I’m doing something (albeit a small something) for our planet: a bit less CO2 emitted from a tailpipe, a few more friendly exhales in the direction of the plants along the road, a bit less stress put out into the world.

I start out each early-morning ride pedaling through the dark in Santa Monica with a red light on the back of my bike and a headlamp strung up around my helmet. Continue reading

Students “Re-Create” the United States

Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United States explores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.

Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors. Continue reading

Nice Work, Simon Rodia (An Italian American Who Could’ve Been the Grand Marshal of Any Columbus Day Parade)!

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

Of all the famous L.A. landmarks—the Capitol Records Building, the Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Monica Pier—perhaps none has a more fascinating origin story than the Watts Towers. This monument to one individual’s creativity and community activism is a fascinating place to visit, both because of the physical scale of the towers and their importance to L.A.’s art community.

For these reasons, a number of us in the Education department took a field trip to the Watts Towers to see them close up, learn about the community programs presented there, and find out more about Simon Rodia (1879-1965), the Italian immigrant, construction worker, and self-made artist who built the towers all by himself over some thirty-three years.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Ten of us ventured to Watts on a sunny Friday morning. The towers are tucked in a neighborhood filled with houses, schools, and nearby Metro tracks. We parked and entered the Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, located in a building adjacent to the towers. The center serves as a space for art workshops, gallery exhibitions, and school programs (one of which was underway when we entered). First we watched a video about Simon’s life, which helped us understand the nature of his unusual undertaking: an immigrant from Serino, Italy, feeling far from home and missing familiar cultural traditions, who took it upon himself to express that longing through the creation of an ambitious work of art.

Examples of how the immigrant experience inspires artistic expression pervade our culture: novels by E.L. Doctorow, songs by Bruce Springsteen, paintings by Jacob Lawrence. As our Education team explores in many of the Skirball’s school tours and school performance programs, the immigrant story is one of the universal experiences in American life. Simon did not express his yearning for Italy or his relishing of opportunity in America in couplets written in a notebook or by painting a watercolor of stars and stripes.

Instead, Simon went big, creating a seventeen-part structure that includes three towers connected by interlocking arches. Continue reading

A Wild Rumpus, In Memoriam

My own beloved copy of In the Night Kitchen.

My own beloved copy of In the Night Kitchen.

By now we’ve all heard the news of the passing of Maurice Sendak, noted author and illustrator, and for some of us a permanent fixture on the bookshelf. Every major news outlet has covered the story and many have published heartfelt remembrances. In his May 9 appreciation, Los Angeles Times Book Critic David Ulin applauds how Sendak’s work reveals “the power of our minds to transform the world.” The day Sendak died, I listened with rapt attention as Wicked author and Sendak mentee Gregory Maguire talked about their friendship on NPR.

Here at the Skirball, Maurice Sendak’s artwork graced our galleries twice: first in the 2002 exhibition Where the Wild Things Are, which was my first experience ever at a Skirball exhibition; and then again as part of our 2010 exhibition Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books. In the fall of 2009, as audiences geared up for Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the Skirball hosted a daylong family program inspired by the classic Sendak book, featuring themed art projects, storytelling, and even a wild rumpus jam.

When the interactive exhibition Where the Wild Things Are was on view here in 2002, children took turns sliding into a giant bowl of “Chicken Soup with Rice,” a gallery component inspired by the Sendak book of the same name. Photo by Vernon Williams.

When the interactive exhibition Where the Wild Things Are was on view here in 2002, children took turns sliding into a giant bowl of “Chicken Soup with Rice,” a gallery component inspired by the Sendak book of the same name. Photo by Vernon Williams.

For me, Sendak’s books weren’t ones that I ever outgrew. Even as a teenager, a college student, and now an adult (and certainly as a parent of a young child), I continue to go back to them. The eccentric drawings of monsters, cooks, and creatures captivate me still. Most of them outcasts or oddballs—from Max and the “Wild Things” to Rosie from Chicken Soup with Rice, from Mickey from In the Night Kitchen to the little dog Jenny from Higglety Pigglety Pop—Sendak’s characters are ones I can always relate to.

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Visiting the Southern Relatives: A New Safdie Museum Opens in Arkansas

View across the water from the restaurant

The newly opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, designed by the Skirball’s architect, Moshe Safdie, has made big news in the art world. Here’s a photo I took when my family and I visited earlier this year. Pictured is the museum’s “gallery bridge” as seen from inside the “dining bridge.”

On a recent trip to visit my husband’s family in northwest Arkansas (my annual pilgrimage to the South, which a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey like me approaches with a healthy mix of excitement and Woody Allen-esque trepidation), I got a chance to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. I’d visited the site a year ago, when only the shapes of the museum’s future buildings were visible from a viewing platform in the forest. Now, after five years of planning and construction, the new museum—which opened in November of last year—is revealing itself to be unique in design and mission, but similar to the Skirball in some very significant ways.

Legend (and New Yorker reporting) has it that Alice Walton, Walmart heiress and lifelong art collector who founded and funded the museum, came to the Skirball (incognito at first, or so another version of the story goes) a few years ago when considering architects for her new museum. She visited the Getty Center and other significant buildings designed by working architects in Los Angeles, but came away from L.A. feeling that she’d found her man in the Skirball’s Moshe Safdie. Something about Safdie’s emphasis on built environments that encourage gathering, his signature commingling of structure with the natural environment, and the light and openness of the Skirball’s spaces seemed to Ms. Walton the ideal architectural point of view to take to house her burgeoning collection of American art.

Skirball Architecture

The Skirball’s main courtyard, which shows that we’re right to describe our site (as we often do) as “nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains.” Photo by Timothy Hursley.

Museum view from entrance

Crystal Bridges, located on property long-held by the Walton family, as seen from the entrance.

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A Father/Daughter “Wow Moment”:
Making a Wish for Women and Girls Worldwide

Rosie, admiring Wish Canopy. How proud I was to see her wish that women and girls “become whatever they want to be.”

The first thing visible when you walk into Women Hold Up Half the Sky is the expansive “sky” that hovers above the gallery. My daughter, Rosie, the consummate twelve-year old, was immediately taken by it, which of course made me happy. As a museum professional, I lust for “wow moments” in museums, and so I was pleased that she had one right away. “This is amazing,” she said, peering over the railing of the mezzanine. “I can’t get over it.”

We made our way into the first section of the exhibition, which focuses on maternal health, and what drew her in most were the paintings and textiles made by families involved with the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Each one tells the story of a woman who perished in childbirth as a result of violence, cultural practice, or poor health care. The images, to say the least, outraged Rosie. Like most kids, she is obsessed with things being fair, and these stories seemed to illustrate just how unfair it is that there are still women who do not survive childbirth. “Horrible. Women should have all the help they need and not have to suffer,” she said with indignation. You said it, sister, I thought to myself. Continue reading