by Ramona Pilar
For many artists, creation takes the form of protest. They are tasked, chosen, or ignited somehow to use their mode of expression to make sense of incongruity/injustice and provide individual solutions to inherent systemic challenges, obstacles that became embedded into the status quo long before any of us were alive.
Jesse Bliss, educator, writer, and activist, created the chapbook I Love Myself Golden to, in her words, “cultivate self-love and respect in the young women she encounters in the [juvenile] halls.” Bliss has been leading creative writing workshops within the juvenile hall system in Los Angeles for upwards of 10 years. Through her experiences she became impassioned and has since dedicated her work as an artist to advocate against the Prison Industrial Complex. She was compelled to create this book to address young, incarcerated women who are, in this society, of the most invisible and vulnerable populations.
The book itself was created as the result of a workshop series she developed through InsideOUT Writers and was supported with a grant from Poets & Writers. It is intended as “a love letter, speaking piercingly to all young women in and outside of physical bars.”
Through the years of working with this community and hearing the girls ask questions such as how to give birth, Bliss was moved to create something to give to them, but she didn’t know exactly what. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting… [would be] totally insulting to them. That’s for upper and middle class people.” Bliss drew on her experience creating chapbooks through her creative writing class at Inner City Arts to craft I Love Myself Golden for this one, specific demographic. “Because it’s been in my heart for so many years, I already [knew] what it should look like… I feel like a lot of us don’t do these types of things because there’s no time, there’s no money. So my first thought was, ‘How can I make this succinct, and how can I make it to size for them, and who can I find that can illustrate it that will really appeal to these girls?’”
Enter Alfie Ebojo, aka Alfie Numeric, a brilliant artist and writer based in the Los Angeles area. Her artwork has a surreal whimsical aesthetic overlying a weighted gravitas in the subject and composition, reminiscent of Mark Ryden and Margaret Keane. “There’s beauty and pain coupled together [in her work]… There’s young women of color… expressing their pain in a way that also shows strength and beauty…”
“’For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.’ A head nod to Rudyard.” – 2011 Acrylics on wood
While the initial aim of the chapbook was inspired by the young women who had questions around motherhood (some of whom were soon to be new mothers themselves), the scope expanded. “I realized it couldn’t just be for those girls; it had to be for all the girls because they were all susceptible to the same circumstance, of pregnancy…it was all connected. It was not separate. The same things needed to be said to the girls who were not pregnant…I feel like all young women in our society are targeted to think and believe that we’re not worth anything because it’s a big money maker: ‘You’re not pretty enough. Your size isn’t right…’ By empowering girls, they’re taught that there’s other options.”
The Roots and Wings Project, founded by Bliss, is a “politically charged, socially transformative theatre company that brings attention to truth and provides stage and space for stories of the unnamed, unspoken and misunderstood through theatrical innovation and multi-media collaboration.” Having written and produced theater for most of her career, this chapbook marks an expansion to other forms of writing. “Theater is my #1 vantage point as an artist, but I’ve always written poetry…Since the time my daughter’s been born, I’ve been noticing that I really should let my work live on the page…and [let other forms of writing] open up a new world for me.”
Bliss, along with partner Peter Woods and publisher Mark Gonzalez have organized an event inspired by the chapbook, which is not so much a chapbook release as it is a platform for “elevation, transformation, conversation,” with the book itself as a catalyst. The event will be held at Espacio 1839, a collectively-run boutique, art gallery and radio station located down the street from Central Juvenile Hall, where some of the workshops took place.
Activism and self-determination can have a wide breadth of incarnations; some manifestations emerge in the form of dedicated, tenacious protest. Some inspire individuals to take on the vocation of creation, conjuring, crafting and bringing into existence the very needed thing that hadn’t yet materialized, that was waiting for that one particular voice and vessel to bring into this realm. Hechiceras and hechiceros del arte, mediums who produce the work that affects, inspires, ignites and heals.
Ramona Pilar is a writer, performer, emotional fluffer and native Californian. She is currently working on a collection of essays entitled “Darth Vader Abandoned his Daughter and Other Thoughts Along The Heroine’s Journey.” She can occasionally be found troubadouring with her band The Raveens.
Jesse Bliss is a playwright, director, producer, actress, poet and veteran arts educator with her work produced around the world at venues such as the United Nations, Edinburgh Festival, Lincoln Heights Jail, S.P.A.R.C at the Old Jail in Venice, The Last Bookstore, The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, Casa 0101 Theater, Theatre of Note, Occidental College, UCSC, UCLA, and California Institute of Integral Studies to name a few. She has taught and created curriculum for Center Theatre Group, The Geffen, Inner-City Arts, Unusual Suspects, J.U.I.C.E. and Inside OUT Writers among others. She is a featured artist in Kate Crash’s LA WOMEN and in Yahoo News’ SHINE Documentaries. Ms. Bliss is a grant recipient from the Flourish Foundation and recently from POETS and WRITERS for writing workshops for incarcerated girls inspiring her chapbook I LOVE MYSELF GOLDEN. Jesse is Co-Producer of KPFK 90.7’s THINK OUTSIDE THE CAGE. She is Founder and Artistic Director of The Roots and Wings Project. http://www.therootsandwingsproject.com.